Humming in the yard

David Atwood Points of the Compass
Posted 9/27/13

I look through the window over our garden and see leaves falling by the handful. A cold front came through over the weekend. The daytime temperature dropped from 96 to 93, but the mornings were cool, and you could get a sense that the seasons are …

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Humming in the yard


I look through the window over our garden and see leaves falling by the handful. A cold front came through over the weekend. The daytime temperature dropped from 96 to 93, but the mornings were cool, and you could get a sense that the seasons are about to change. The biggest hint of all is that the hummingbirds are coming to the feeder more frequently, and in greater number, which means it won’t be long before they are gone, but while they are here, my heart sings to watch them.

It has always amazed me that the smallest things bring the greatest joy. I remember as a kid having an ant farm and watching for hours as the occupants carved intricate caverns in the dirt. I love watching birds and we have many to see out our windows, but the ones that bring me the greatest joy are the smallest, the hummingbirds.

Whenever I am wound up, anxious, or just need a break from work, which seems to be increasingly often, I go, sit, and stare at the hummingbird feeder while I have my chocolate doughnuts and diet Dr. Pepper. Since hummingbirds feed about four times an hour, I don’t have to sit long before I am rewarded with the appearance of one or more of these tiny aeronautical wonders. It is hard for me to believe they are birds and not insects. I can see how folklore began that hummingbirds were insects before they became birds.

We have several species in Alabama. Among them are the Rufous, Black-chinned, Allen’s, Buff-bellied, Calliope, Broad-tailed, Anna’s, Magnificent, Blue-throated, and the Ruby-throated. I have seen only the Rufous and Ruby-throated at our feeder with the Ruby-throated being the most observed. It is the most common of hummingbirds ranging all the way from Alaska to Florida, and into Mexico and Central America.

I have always enjoyed seeing them around, but when I became most fascinated with them was when we were cruising aboard our sailboat, Starchaser. While in the Gulf of Mexico, and points south, with no land around for a hundred miles or more, the tiny birds would land among our rigging. We would put out sugar water in small bowls, which attracted more of them, and watch them for hours. We did some internet research and found out they are migratory. I began to put the bowls closer to me as I helmed the ship and was delighted that they would come so close. They seemed to have no fear of me at all or were so in need of fuel that they were willing to risk my presence. They would buzz around us, eat, rest in the rigging before resuming their migration.

Subsequent research informed us that hummingbirds are carnivores, and only seek nectar for fuel. They feed on insects and such, and have to migrate to warmer winter climes to have sufficient food. Research is thin on hummingbirds, but what banding there is indicates that healthy birds follow a precise migratory route often arriving at the same feeder on the same day for years. They lead solitary lives and neither live, nor migrate in flocks. Depending on health and food availability, some will winter anywhere from Mexico to Panama.

In January or February, hummingbirds began their journey north, stopping in the Yucatan to gorge on insects and spiders putting on a layer of fat to make the hop to North America. Some will skirt the Texas coast while others leave at dusk for a non-stop trip of 500 miles taking 18-22 hours depending on the weather, and whether or not there is a friendly sailboat handy on which to stop and rest.

The migration covers three months with the males leaving first and the females following 10 days later. The guys come here to fight over territories and secure feeding rights at various sources. Although they don’t come with license plates or tail numbers, I am pretty sure we have had the same birds at our feeder for four years now. Two males zoom and zip about the feeder trying to chase each other off. If they would just look, they could see that the feeder is full with more sugar water than either of them could ever eat, and if they stay on opposite sides, they don’t have to see each other, but no, they have to fight for the whole enchilada, so to speak. It seems that boys will be boys even among very small birds.

This year, we have had another visitor to our feeder. Several mornings in a row, we have found the feeder empty. The only thing we can figure is that a raccoon or an opossum has learned to swing the thing back and forth to slosh the sweet juice out where they can lick it up. I suspect it is a raccoon. I don’t think opossums are that smart, and besides, they are so dang ugly.

It won’t be long before we put the feeder out in the morning and it will be unvisited all day. The critters it is to feed will have gone on vacation somewhere south. It always makes me sad to know they are gone and the feeder seems to droop hanging out there. I will leave it up for a couple of more weeks for any strays who are late leaving and need to gas up before heading across the Gulf. I will clean it; put it away in the garage where it will represent hope for a new spring in the new year when my tiny friends come back.

David Wilson Atwood may be contacted at