Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Flight of Fancy

The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is a feisty creature. A scant three inches tall, the birds’ diminutive stature belies its fierce nature. Hovering in midair, two birds battle to determine which has the right to drink from the hanging feeder. The combatants duel by mirroring the others’ flight pattern, bobbing up and down, and circling one another in an impressive display of aerial ballet. Highly territorial, a hummingbird will attempt to drive a rival off with a barrage of shrill chirping.

Erratic movements and lightning quick speed make it difficult to get a good look at the birds. In a matter of seconds, the confrontation is settled, and they retreat in opposite directions at speeds approaching 60 mph. The hum from their wings sounds like miniature jet-fighters streaking across the sky.

Moments later, the victor returns to savor the spoils. Beating its wings 55 times per second, the bird hovers in front of the feeder’s tiny opening. With its heart rate pounding away at 1,200 beats per minute, and its respiration at 250 breaths per minute, the hummingbird extends its long tongue through a hollow opening in its beak and consumes its meal. The unusual beak design allows the bird to feed without opening its mouth.

Scott Roxbrough, manager of The Audubon Shop in Madison, is very familiar with this feisty little bird. He says “They are very protective of their food source and will dive at any intruder to defend their feeder.”

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the only hummingbird species to breed east of the Mississippi. They return to Connecticut from their winter homes in Mexico and Central America when wild columbine comes into bloom, typically in April. The bird’s arrival is relished by hummingbird enthusiasts who plant flowers and put out feeders to entice the birds to stop and setup house in their yard.

It is common for hummingbirds to return to successful feeding grounds year after year. Roxbrough recounts a story about the shop’s owner, Janet Connolly, who observed a hummingbird hovering around the second-story window of her house. The bird had arrived several weeks earlier than expected, and its favorite feeder which hung by the window the previous year, was unexpectedly absent. Connolly quickly put up the feeder, and to everyone’s delight, the bird remained throughout the summer.

Weighing less than an eighth of an ounce, hummingbirds consume an enormous amount of calories per day to power their frenetic lifestyle. Darting from flower to flower, they drink up a diet rich in sugar from the plant’s sap wells. They also feed on small insects which are caught in-flight or plucked from a spider’s web.

Hummingbird feeders are great additions to attract migrating birds to one’s yard. Typically red in color, the feeders are filled with sweet syrup, and act like a stop sign for the birds. Roxbrough recommends purchasing feeders “that are easy to clean and refill” because the syrup needs to be changed every 3 or 4 days throughout the summer to prevent mold growth.

Syrup is easily made at home by boiling 1 cup of white sugar in 4 cups of water. Boil the mixture for just a minute or two, or else too much water will evaporate making the syrup too sweet. After the mixture cools, fill clean feeders, and refrigerate unused nectar for up to one week.

A common concern amongst back-yard birders is figuring out when to take down a hummingbird feeder. The fear is that some birds might not depart for their September migration because food is still plentiful. Roxbrough calms their worries by telling them “the birds know when to leave” and points out that “in the fall, the birds you see are generally migrating birds, and not the summer residents.”

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is aptly named for the male bird which sports a brilliant, iridescent red gorget (throat). Females lack this fancy decoration, but both birds share a metallic bronze-green color along their back and head. Extremely short legs prevent the bird from walking or hopping, but the ability to fly backwards is a skill only hummingbirds can claim.

The bird builds its walnut size nest from thistle and dandelion down. Spider web is used to bind the nest together, and lichen and moss are used for camouflage. Generally 10-20 feet off the ground, the nest rests on a small tree branch, and will eventually be filled with two white eggs, each about the size of a bean. The young leave the nest in approximately three weeks after hatching.

Henry Eggert, Perennial Manager at Van Wilgen’s Garden Center in North Branford, stresses the importance of choosing the right plants for attracting hummingbirds to your yard. “The biggest thing to keep in mind if you want hummingbirds to stay in your garden is that hummingbirds think with their stomach – so you have to keep them fed!” For gardeners, this means you should have 2 to 3 types of plants in constant bloom from April until fall, when the birds leave for their southern migration and non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. An assortment of annual and perennial flowers, mixed with flowering shrubs makes an ideal combination.

Foxglove is one of Eggert’s preferred perennial choices for kicking off the season. He says “once it starts blooming, it will go all season long right until frost.” He also recommends Allium as another spring choice. Phlox, Crocosmia and the stunning torch lily, Red Hot Poker, all produce vibrant blooms throughout the summer. A great fall option is Salvia.

Hummingbirds are fascinating to watch as they feed, so hanging basket plants like Lantana, Petunia, and Fuchsia, carefully arranged on a deck or beside a window, can bring the birds up close for easy viewing. Flowering shrubs like Butterfly Bush, in purple, white or pink, perform dual duty by attracting both hummingbirds and butterflies. If old flowers are trimmed, this bush will continue to bloom until late fall.

“As far as colors go, red is the traditional color, but hummingbirds see most other colors as well.” says Eggert. Hot colors like orange, yellow and pink are great additions to hummingbird beds.

Eggert, a frequent guest speaker at garden clubs across the shoreline, often lectures on how to build a successful hummingbird garden. He advises gardeners “The more native species you can go with, the better off you are. Native plants have a higher nutritional value for hummingbirds than the exotics.” He also mentions that plants with tubular shaped flowers are commonly used because they complement the unique adaptations of the humming bird, and limit competition from bees and other insects.

For hummingbird, feeder or planting advice, you can contact The Audubon Shop at: 203-245-9056 www.theaudubonshop.com or Van Wilgen’s Garden Center at: 203-488-2110 www.vanwilgens.com.