April 4, 1991

Spring is in the Air

Compared to hummingbirds, the Blue Angels are aerial cripples.

I have been told that feeding hummingbirds is BAD. Well, if feeding hummingbirds is bad, then I am an unregenerate, unrepentant, bound-for-hell-for-sure sinner, and so are a lot of people hereabouts. I, like many of my friends, use more sugar feeding the hummers in a month than I use on me and my family in 10 years.

I have been told that a reason for NOT feeding them is that if you let the feeders run dry, a lot of them might die of starvation. That's not very likely to happen in the Spy Rock area. Even when my flowers are gone and my feeders dry up, there are lots more feeders within two or three miles --a trivial distance to a hummingbird. Hummingbird feeding and watching is as popular a sport hereabouts as gardening.

By putting out sugar water I have changed the ecological balance around my home. In keeping with a basic principle of ecology, increasing the food supply increases the population of critters that eat that food. That I have increased the hummingbird population is evident because there are lots more hummers in the autumn than there were in the spring, and most of them are juveniles. The next step in the cycle should be an increase of those species that feed on hummingbirds. I wonder what those will be.

I have made many changes around my home. By planting a garden I have increases the number and variety of insects and birds. By bringing two cats here, I have decreased the numbers of small rodents. Decreasing the rodent population also decreases the rattlesnake population. I have altered the ecological balance around my home to suit my taste. I like having lots of flowers and birds around. I could do with fewer rodents and rattlesnakes. I like deer, but not in my garden, so I have an electric fence. This quarter acre is my domain. I leave my other 22 acres to any creatures who want to use it.

If I were running a wilderness preserve, I wouldn't put out hummingbird feeders. Neither would I allow people into it, including me.

Why this fraternity and sorority or hummingbird lovers? The truth is that of all of nature's creations, including man, the hummingbird is one of the most fabulous. Its aerial skills are the envy of any fighter pilot and, if birds knew envy, they would be the envy of other birds. It can stand still in the air, hover, move slowly, swoop and zoom, dive and come out of it with an audible snap. Compared to hummingbirds, the Blue Angels are aerial cripples.

All that you have to do to watch the whole show is to buy a hummingbird feeder, fill it and watch. You don't need a blind because the birds aren't afraid of you. If you don't move, you can watch them with your head six inches away from the feeder. It's a wonderful experience to have a hummingbird hover six inches from your nose and just stare at you. Watching acrobatic airplane flying is a bore by comparison, and a lot more dangerous.

And they chase one another. I don't know whether it is combat or play, or both. It's never the same from one moment to the next. They, like the proverbial barrel of monkeys, are unpredictable. They will all perch at the feeder or one will keep the others away. They will visit all of the the flowers, including the garlic blossoms.

Prof. Oliver Pearson, at U.C. Berkeley, did the work that showed what an amazing high and low metabolic rate hummingbirds have. When they fly, they consume immense amounts of energy and when they rest for the night, their body temperature drops and they become completely torpid. Pearson would go out at dusk and watch where the birds roosted for the night. He would note the spot and then come back at four in the morning and simply pluck them off their perch. He took them back to the lab, where he put them in a large sealed cage and measured their metabolism.

What do you feed hummingbirds? Sugar water, uncolored, unadulterated: one part of sugar to three parts of water. If you had such a diet it would rot your teeth, but, fortunately, hummingbirds don't have teeth. Boil it, let it cool and fill the feeder. It takes a while for them to find you, but once they do, be prepared for a crowd. We use one to two gallons of hummingbird food per week in the late summer. I have neighbors who use twice that much.

How do the birds do on plain sugar water? Great! They vary their diet with flower nectar and bugs. I have read that there are problems using other sources of sugar such as honey. Besides, who could afford it?

Maybe I am doing the wrong thing by feeding them. Still, if the Audubon Society sells bird feeders of all kinds, who am I to argue? Everyone knows that the Audubon Society is for the birds.

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