Eastern bluebirds, eastern kingbirds, northern mockingbirds, cattle egrets and a legion vast of other birds fill the days and nights at the family farm in East Texas. Mom was especially pleased when a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers took up residence, a species she had not seen in years. And much to our surprised delight, a pair of Inca doves has kept station in the woods surrounding the house, a species outside its mapped range in this area but well within the expanded range indicated by reported sightings.
Of the avian species that inhabit this section of the Piney Woods however, one we seem to collect with ease is the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). The dense woods and meandering waterways and availability of food ensure they fill the sky with their buzzing wings, their theatrical antics, their tropical beauty and their mellifluous voices.
Generally I’m disinclined to photograph wildlife baited into position. Not that I have anything against feeding birds and squirrels and deer and whatever other creatures you feel inclined to feed. I’ve been known to do the same thing. Yet when it comes to taking pictures of nature, I prefer the challenge and reward that comes from doing so on nature’s terms, not mine. Nevertheless, Mom keeps three feeders outside the back door, and as part of life here at the farm I simply can’t ignore the wonder of these tiny birds.
In spring when the hummingbirds begin returning from their wintering grounds in Central and South America, one feeder is made available until more birds arrive. Then another is added. And when the population reaches critical mass, the third feeder is made available.
My mother generally waits until the middle to end of spring before the first feeder gets hung. Before then it goes to waste. Her timing has always been impeccable, thus it came as no surprise when she mentioned a few months ago that it was about time for the birds to return and she should prepare some sugar water. As she spoke she walked to the back door and pushed aside the curtain. Confirming her impression that it was indeed time to put up a feeder, just outside the window a male hummingbird hovered, swinging back and forth like a pendulum, all the while staring through the window and trying his best to look famished. After the long migration they go through to return here for nesting season, looking famished came easily for the little guy, though his entertaining arrival and display did more to communicate knowing impatience than hunger.
A simple recipe of one part sugar to four parts water fills the feeders—and therefore the hummingbirds’ bellies—from the time the first feeder goes up until the last one comes down in autumn. Throughout the intervening months, dawn and dusk provide a show that would beguile and entertain the hardest of hearts, for anywhere from one to two dozen hummingbirds arrive for their first drink of the day and for their last drink of the day. Territoriality over feeders and competition for resources ensures shenanigans on the wing and vociferous dialogue.
Once nesting season ends, the number of birds increases as the young begin visiting, taking their fill as needed. Yet smartly Mom has never relied solely on the feeders to provide for ruby throats. Doing so is akin to providing a solid diet of fast food to children. Augmenting their natural diet with sugar water is one thing, but making it a staple is quite another. So a variety of flowers, both wild and gardened, surround the house and fill the woods, from trumpet vines to spider lilies to cone flowers to morning glories to passion flowers and a whole lot more. A smorgasbord of natural food sources ensures the hummingbirds need only rely on the feeders for quick fixes, the sure thing when they haven’t the time or interest to hunt for something wild. And the flowers attract small insects and spiders, an important part of the birds’ diet and something not provided by feeders.
Because they must be cleaned regularly lest the sweet contents become a sour mess, the feeders are allowed to empty on their own before refilling. This sometimes means all three become empty at the same time, and that creates the best encounters of all, for walking out the door with just-filled feeders brings the birds right to us. It’s not unusual to have them feeding while the feeder hangs from our hands, and it’s also not unusual to have them sate their curiosity by investigating us while this happens, often flying back and forth in front of our faces as if trying to determine the intentions in our eyes.
Even when not pushed to such encounters by empty feeders, the birds lack significant fear of people, hence close encounters with them occur regularly. They happily perch within reach, fly by at breakneck speeds so near that the wind from their wings brushes our skin, and otherwise tolerate our comings and goings with little drama. Well, at least little drama with regards to us since they have plenty of drama betwixt themselves.
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Photos (all of ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris):
- Male (in flight) and female (perched)
- Five females