They return every April to our Kentucky backyard, survivors of a 3000 journey from Central America, which includes a non-stop 500 mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a journey my hummingbird friends will repeat again, returning in fall to their winter feeding grounds.
Knowing of their imminent arrival, I had faithfully set out our bright red hummingbird feeder in mid-April. For some reason, they prefer red and orange colors. Every spring, I’d be either sitting in the sunroom or outside, prepping the flower beds, when I would first spot or hear a solitary aerial scout probing, like some overhead helicopter, the landscape below. First of a coming vanguard, this sole wayfarer heralded spring’s rebirth, despite frequent rain, temperature dips, and clouds that frustrate the sun.
Always, as though set on a timer, my guests start their return journey the first week of October. I last saw them here on October 3, busily waging war with each other for first rights to their sugar drink. I know what this is about. It’s important for them to increase their body fat by half to fuel their arduous journey. I’m glad to provide a way station.
I’ve learned enough about hummingbirds to know this remnant flew-in from other haunts this fall, perhaps even from lower Canada, seeking to refuel. If I hadn’t seen any hummingbirds since early August, it was because my regular clientele were already embarked on their long journey. Hummingbirds begin their return migration as early as the waning weeks of July, extending through the second week of September, depending on the locus of their summer habitat.
The next day, they had vanished, nature stamping fall’s passport while signaling my own need to prepare our yard for winter’s long sleep.
Still, I keep the feeder out just in case there’s a straggler about. It happened one year. I had seen this seemingly forlorn hummingbird on our woodpile out back, which is quite unusual, since hummingbirds can’t walk or hop like other birds, given their tiny feet. That’s why their feeders lack perches.
Moving cautiously, I was able to get near enough to cup him in my hands and place him in an old shoebox, uncovered, for a quick trip to our vet. Along the way, Karen and I kept thinking anxious scenarios of what to do if he got loose in the car. But it never happened, thank goodness.
The vet, a bird specialist, shrewdly put sugar solution into a nose dropper and he started drinking–hey, a good sign. Then, suddenly, here he was, zooming around the exam room. Well, we got him back, cradled him into his box again, this time with aerated cover, and took him home.
Releasing him in the backyard, we watched our friend fly eagerly to a high pine branch, rest momentarily, before soaring out of sight, perhaps ready to resume his journey over land and sea.
I’d like to think he did well, but the final fate of migratory birds is an uncertain one at best. Their worst enemies are storms and loss of habitat through human intrusion. An estimated one third don’t make it. That’s why it’s incumbent you and I who have backyards do all we can to lend a helping hand to our aerial friends.
After all, they help us maintain the ecological balance on which life depends, including our own.
Postscript: Fun Facts about Hummingbirds:
- Of 320 species in America’s, only 8 of them breed in the U.S., among the most notable, the ruby-throated hummingbird. Hummingbirds are found only in the Americas.
- They live about 3-5 years.
- Each species makes a different humming sound, determined by wing beats per second.
- Their wings beat between 50 and 200 flaps per second.
- Their tiny hearts beat 1200 times a minute.
- They take 250 breaths per minute at rest, which isn’t often.
- They can straight fly at 30 mph, dive at 60 mph.
- Among bird species, they’re your ninja warriors, known to attack jays, crows, and even hawks.
- In size, some species are so small they’re consumed by other insects such as praying mantis and dragonflies.
- They’re the only birds that can fly backwards and sometimes upside down.
- Hummingbirds must eat twice their body weight daily, and to do this, they visit hundreds of flowers, primarily feeding on nectar. (I make a sugar substitute formula for them, changing it every 3 or 4 days to avoid mold.)
- Unlike other migratory birds, each hummingbird makes a solitary journey, and not as part of a flock. (Hard to imagine, even for a human, crossing the Gulf of Mexico by yourself, without map and compass. But these 3 inch creatures are nature’s miracle. Even more spectacular, young birds travel to a homeland they’ve never seen, depending solely on instinctual navigational skills.)