Hummingbird a diminutive marvel

Master Gardener guest columnist Phyl Strawbridge in the greenhouse at her Southwest Albany home.

Master Gardener guest columnist Phyl Strawbridge in the greenhouse at her Southwest Albany home.

Phyl Strawbridge

With wings flapping at 50-60 times per second and weighting in at 2 to 3 grams, the hummingbird that is approximately three inches long is the smallest known bird in the world. Sitting on the porch watching nature at its finest, one can only marvel at this tiny bird who breathes 250 times per minute and whose heart pumps an unbelievable 1,260 beats during that same period of time.

As it flies past looking for insects, it can fly up or down and unimaginably, it can even fly in reverse and upside down. A hummingbird’s brain is 4.2 percent of its body weight, which is the largest proportion in the bird kingdom. They are very smart and can remember every flower they have been to and how long it will take a flower to refill. They can see and hear better than humans.

To attract hummingbirds, more is required than just the red birdfeeders which can be purchased most anywhere: a source of water and additional plants are necessary to attract this tiny bird. Obviously, red is the very favorite color of these little hummers but it is not absolutely necessary to buy the red sugar water as they are attracted to the fed feeder itself, not necessarily the red liquid inside.

Remember to keep your hummingbird feeders clean and the water changed often. Keeping the feeder in the shade will cut down on algae growth and making the nectar is as easy as mixing one part sugar with one part water.

Using boiling water makes the sugar melt but use only when the nectar has cooled and store the excess in the refrigerator for later use. They’ve learned that red tubular flowers contain the most nectar which explains why they will stop to check out red inanimate objects in the yard such as flower pots, bicycles and wagons.

Evergreens attract hummingbirds as they provide shelter, nesting sites and food in the form of seed producing cones. Various berry producing shrubs and trees easily attract hummingbirds as well as others and providing bird baths near trees and flowers makes it all increasingly popular with all birds.

Fallacies include the old belief that hummingbirds never land; they are perpetually in motion.This is not true at all as they can be seen perched on feeders, in trees and of course in their next.

Another misconception is that hummingbirds don’t have feet. All birds have wings and feet but hummingbirds don’t walk; they’d rather fly.

One old-fashioned believe is that hummingbirds are a cross between insects and birds. A report to Queen Isabella written by a Spaniard contained information that this fact was indeed true.

Little is known of their lifespan, but a hummer that was banded in 1976 in Colorado and recaptured again in 1988 at the same location was wearing the original band, proving she was 12 years old. Hummingbirds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, a federal law that prohibits holding a hummingbird, its next, eggs or a hummingbird’s baby or trying to control them in any way unless you have a valid permit from the government.

Some 350 species of hummers live from the southern tip of South America to the snows of Alaska and from the southern tip of California to the cold regions of Newfoundland.

When hummingbirds sleep they actually go into a state similar to hibernation; a very deep sleep. It’s called torpor. The metabolism drops to 1/15th of the normal rate; the temperature drops to the point of hypothermia; the heartbeat slows to 50 per minute and the breathing slows to the point that you might think they are no longer alive.

This state saves 60 percent of their available energy and if you see one hanging upside down as they occasionally do, do not disturb them as they are most likely sound asleep. It takes somewhere between 20 minutes to an hour for them to return from torpor and the first thing they’ll want and be in need of is food.

Attract hummingbirds through their gardening efforts. If you don’t have a humming bird or butterfly garden or the space for one, you can always plant a haven for both in yard containers. Hummingbirds are attracted to salvia as well as others like geraniums and tubular shape blooms like foxglove.

“The Birds and Blooms” June/July 2012 issue states that columbine, phlox, bee balm, fuchsia, salvia, pineapple sage, verbena, cardinal flower, cigar flower and lungwort are the top ten plants preferred by hummingbirds.

Deadhead spent blossoms before they go to seed which keeps the plants producing more blossoms and more nectar which keep hummers around longer. Hummingbirds make their next from plant material glued together with spider webs that will enable the nests to expand, and :”gluing’ lichen to the outside of the next for camouflage.

The 11 species of hummingbirds records in Georgia can be seen at http://www.gahummer.org/recorded.htm. For butterfly fans before sure to check out www.birdsforever.comm/butterfly.html.

Phyl Strawbridge is a Master Gardener Extension Volunteer since 2010, a member and immediate past president of the SOWEGA Master Gardeners and is a resident of Dougherty County.