October 2009
4-H Extension Corner

Hummingbirds: The World’s Little Mysteries

 

Martha and Bob Sargent.

That hummingbird that whizzed passed your head to fight off a rival at your backyard feeder can amazingly hover, fly forwards and backwards, up and down, and even fly upside down in a panic situation at normal speeds of 30 miles per hour and escape speeds of up to 60!

They are tiny, with adults weighing usually from 2.5 to 3.5 grams (amazing since it takes 28 grams to make an ounce!).

And that tiny ball of fierce energy at your feeder this fall has likely migrated from a northern state, will cross the Gulf of Mexico or Texas, and wind up wintering in Southern Mexico or Central America.

Bob Sargent tells of the proper way to mix sugar water, four parts water to one part sugar, in backyard feeders.

 

As they talked of the different species of hummers and their many amazing qualities, Bob Sargent told a crowd of over 100 at the Frank Green Office Building in Oneonta, "Martha and I have decided God must be involved in all this!"

At the September-first program sponsored jointly by the Blount County Master Gardeners and the Blount County Extension Service, the Sargents provided information they’d obtained personally during their more than 25 years as hummingbird banders and educators.

Bob explained, "The hummer you see at your home feeder today will be gone tomorrow, replaced by a different one."

With 45 feeders at their Clay County area home, the Sargents regularly see about 800 Ruby-throated hummingbirds each year, and "catch about 175 we had banded the previous year."

 

An adult male Broad-billed hummingbird in flight.

"Most of the time we catch them on the exact same day as we did last year," he explained. "They have great navigational systems. They know where they’re supposed to be and when they’re supposed to be there."

Bob and Martha became interested more than a quarter century ago simply by watching the birds coming to the single feeder they owned at that time. But they found education and information about hummingbirds was sparse.

They approached experts about the possibility of becoming bird banders and went through the process of having "three people vouch for us through the program which is part of the U.S. Geological Service," Martha explained.

"The first year we didn’t know what we were doing and, that year’s data, we threw it all out," Martha said. "That’s why we teach banders now."

This adult male White-eared hummingbird illustrates the long bill that can easily sip the nectar from flowers—or your backyard feeder.

 

There were only 28 licensed, permitted banders in the WORLD when the Sargents started about 27 years ago. Now there are several hundred banders around the globe and a whopping 40 percent of them were taught personally by the Sargents!

The Sargents have a ten-unit trap system at their home where feeders are placed into the traps and the doors are closed once individual birds go in to feed. (A special permit is required to do this, so don’t try it at home!) They also band birds throughout the United States.

The bands, which are provided only to permitted banders, give the age, sex, time, date, species and location. The Sargents also measure and weigh the tiny creatures and then send them on their way within 20 minutes.

Bob and Martha explained hummer’s primary food is small, soft-bodied insects, believed to be fruit flies, gnats, mosquitoes, aphids, spiders, caterpillars and insect eggs. Sugar water should be mixed with four parts water and one part sugar with no food coloring and no store-bought additives. Honey or other sweeteners should NEVER be used.

 

A young immature Anna’s female hummer.

Contrary to some beliefs, the feeders can be left out year-round and hummingbirds WON’T become dependent on the winter sugar water. If there are hummers at your feeders after November 15th, the Sargents ask you to give them a phone call so they can come out and identify that particular species.

The major predators of hummingbirds include crows, jays, gray rat snakes and more, but Bob said the worst predator of hummers and all songbirds are ordinary house cats!

"I love cats, but cats should be kept inside," he said.

A Rufous Humming-bird in Bob’s hand after it was banded.

 

Several photos of tiny hummingbird nests showed the tiny black-eyed pea-size eggs, with the mothers alone usually raising two clutches of eggs a year.

"80 percent of all hatched will die before they’re a year old," Bob explained.

The small birds sleep at night, usually perched high away from danger. While their body temperatures are usually 105-108 degrees, that can plunge to 40 to 50 degrees at night which Bob said is "only about a heartbeat away from death."

Martha explained how traps should be used to keep ants out of feeders because a chemical on the ants immediately spoils the sugar water once they crawl inside. Wasps and yellow jackets should also be trapped nearby so they’ll be away from the feeders.

Martha talked of numerous plants that will attract hummingbirds including annuals like scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) which "spreads like crazy."

"Everybody who wants hummingbirds should plant this," she explained.

While most folks don’t like quickly-spreading mimosas in their yards or gardens, hummingbirds flock to them. The "old-fashioned" lantana was also recommended as "songbirds also feed on their berries."

Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus Arboreus drummondii), pineapple sage, coral honeysuckle, trumpet vine and more were also recommended.

For many years, hummingbird knowledge was so limited it was thought only the Ruby-throated variety were found east of the Mississippi. But the Sargents noted, through winter banding activity in numerous states, 13 other species have been found in the East including Rufous, Allen’s, Broad-tailed, Buff-bellied, Calliope, Black-chinned, Magnificent, Anna’s, Costa’s, Green Violet-ear, White-eared, Broad-billed and Green-breasted Mango.

The Sargents are founders of the Hummer/Bird Study Group, a non-profit group to study primarily hummingbirds and other songbirds as well. The group has no paid workers, only volunteers like the Sargents who love birds. They invite folks to come to Fort Morgan State Park in the spring and fall to band and study birds.

The Sargents also teach banding at their home, providing the information and letting the banders stay at their home at no cost. The week before the meeting a woman from Ecuador had spent the week there.

"We may just be the luckiest two people in the world," Bob explained.

For more information on the Hummer Study Group, you may check out www.hummingbirdsplus.org, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or contact the Sargents at (205) 681-2888. Extension Agent Dan Porch, long-time member of the group, said the quarterly newsletter alone is worth the $20 membership fee.

Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County She can be reached at www.suzysfarm.com.