Hummingbirds amusing and entertaining

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 23, 2005

The most spectacular show in town in recent days has been right outside our dining room window; the hummingbirds are here.

You don’t have to be a bird lover to enjoy the action or to marvel at nature’s mastery of design. I read somewhere that the average aerial dogfight can be measured in seconds. Even if that is so, the hummingbirds’ aerobatics make it seem glacial.

I don’t recall when I first saw a hummingbird, but I have a vague recollection of being alarmed when what seemed to be the largest insect I’d ever see zipped noisily past my head. I had not paid much attention to hummingbirds until last year when we hung a feeder from a tree limb so that it was easily seen from the deck or the dining room.

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The investment of a little sugar water returned hours of entertainment. Sugar water doesn’t have a place on the USDA’s latest food pyramid, but I’ll not lecture the hummingbirds about that. Any creature that can fly across the Gulf of Mexico on a diet of sugar water and bugs is a lot fitter than I am.

The show was so engrossing last year that my wife couldn’t wait to put the feeder out again this past spring. Not long afterwards, we spotted a lone hummingbird. It didn’t appear very often, and we were beginning to think we were being snubbed when it began showing up more frequently.

He (or she) has clearly claimed the feeder as his own. When he isn’t feeding, he sits on a limb or hovers somewhere above the feeder. When another hummingbird has the temerity to approach the feeder, he dives like a fighter plane out of the sun, and pursues the intruder at speeds of 60 miles an hour or more.

It often seems that the proprietor hummingbird spends all of his energy defending his turf. There’s plenty of sugar water for everyone, but he wants it all for himself, sort of like the person who has known hard times and can’t ever have too much food in the larder. A kindergarten teacher would note that this bird does not play well with others.

I thought peace had broken out the other day as I sat eating lunch. I saw two hummingbirds at the feeder without getting into aerial combat. A little later I saw one bird enjoy a leisurely stay at the feeder while another perched patiently on the limb above.

Both times, though, the proprietor hummingbird zipped in, scattering both the trespassers.

A little later, there were five hummingbirds around the feeder, absorbed in an intricate aerial ballet, zooming up, down, shifting sideways and even stopping in mid-air. A choreographer would be challenged to script it. When the proprietor’s attention was focused on one bird, the others would make a quick stop at the feeder, in what I think race drivers refer to as a splash and dash.

I’m not sure what species of hummingbirds I am watching; they’re far too fast for me to get a fix on their features. I expect that they are Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. They were once thought to be the only species east of the Mississippi; now 11 other species have been documented. Sixteen species of hummingbirds are seen in the United States and Canada, but altogether there are about 330 species, all in the New World.

I am amazed that these tiny creatures get any food at all during their mad dashes to the feeder. I read somewhere that a hummingbird can consume up to 50 percent of its weight in nectar and insects each day, but I’ve also read that a Ruby-throated Hummingbird can consume 1 1/2 to 3 times its own weight.

I enjoy the sugar water – make that iced tea – that I drink, but somehow it doesn’t turn into raw energy for me the way it does for hummingbirds.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at

(c)2005 William B. Brown