Editorial: Face to face with a grateful hummingbird

Published: 7/22/2018 12:04:55 AM

The goofy-looking red plastic feeder with fake yellow flowers hangs beyond the screen just a few feet from the porch chair. For years, it has been visited by at least one pair of hummingbirds, perhaps more. They are evening regulars, tanking up on the sugar water that will help see them through nights that already have a hint of chill in them.

Though the fortunate few may see two or possibly three species of hummingbirds in New Hampshire, only one, Archilochus colubris, the ruby-throated hummingbird, consistently makes the state its summer home. Nothing, man-made or in nature, flies like them. Their wings, beating 50 times per second or more, allow the tiny birds to hover, fly backward, forward and upside down, stop not on a dime but a pinhead, and rocket off as if shot from a gun. Watching them, and hearing their tiny clicks and squeaks, is one of the joys of summer.

Ruby throats are three to 3½ inches long. Females, who do all of the work of keeping eggs warm and raising offspring, are larger than males, which weigh 2.4 grams or about as much as a penny. A big female can weigh 4.5 grams, as much as four jelly beans. In New Hampshire, pairs hatch just one brood. After a soaring and diving courtship by the male followed by mating, the female lays two or three tiny white eggs in a thimble-sized nest held together with spider silk. The young, like their parents, will fly off in September and winter in Central America before returning to the same summer home in late April or early May.

Hummingbirds are disproportionately smart for their size.

Human brains make up about 2 percent of an average person’s bodyweight; hummingbirds more than double that at 4.2 percent. That brainpower allows them to remember not just the location of every flower or feeder they’ve visited, but how long it takes a plant to refill a flower cup with nectar once drained. A creature whose heart beats 1,200 times per minute can’t afford to waste energy going to the flower equivalent of an empty fridge.

Hummingbirds recognize and remember people and have been known to fly about their heads to alert them to empty feeders or sugar water that has gone bad. The feeder beyond the screen, however, had been freshly filled, one part sugar to four parts water, white sugar only, so the seated watcher could only assume that the female ruby throat was getting acquainted and saying thanks.

She circled the feeder, dipping her rapier beak into one fake flower after another, then flew over to hover at eye level for 20 or 30 seconds. She returned to the feeder, hovered in front of the watcher again and zoomed off. Moments later she returned with the male. Bright-red throat, iridescent green plumage – a Christmas ornament come to life. It too tanked up and flew off, and the female returned to hover, eyeball to shiny, coal-black eyeball, to say, we assume, thanks and goodnight.

Hummingbirds can grow accustomed to people and even be induced to perch on a finger while feeding. Credible tales of hummingbirds greeting a human friend, if that’s what such a relationship can be called, are not uncommon. Neither are reports of a hummingbird entering a home and following a human as he or she moves from room to room.

Still a doubter? Click this link and decide whether you too may want to fill your yard with bee balm, butterfly bushes, coral bells, lupines, foxgloves and other hummingbird favorites, and maybe make a tiny new friend.

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