Hummingbirds

I have wasted my life with mineralogy, which has led to nothing. Had I devoted myself to birds, their life and plumage, I might have produced something worth doing. If I could only have seen a hummingbird fly, it would have been an epoch in my life.
John Ruskin

Southeast Arizona is one of the best places in the U.S. to view hummingbirds. As many as fifteen different species can be seen here in spring and summer, with August/September being the peak viewing period.

Hummingbird in flightThese birds, the smallest in the world, are most abundant in the tropics, with about 400 species in the western hemisphere. The mountains of southeastern Arizona claim the greatest diversity of hummingbird species in the U.S. Many Mexican species including the Plain-capped Starthroat and the White-eared Hummingbird can also be seen in the mountains near the border. Since they are so tiny and move extremely rapidly, only avid birders with binoculars and a good field guide can easily identify the different species of hummingbirds in the wild. (For many of us just having seen a hummingbird on the wing is enough.)

A good place to view hummingbirds is at the Ramsey Canyon Preserve just south of Sierra Vista. Many different varieties of hummingbird frequent the feeders there, and a birder can enjoy watching them while seated on the porch behind the visitor center. Since the feeders are in the open, birders can get an unobstructed view of the birds.

Hummingbirds feed on nectar by lapping it up with long tongues. Rather than sucking the fluid up, the birds have tiny grooves running the length of the tongue which transport the liquid up by capillary action, a natural force that causes liquids to rise in small diameter tubes. The long, slender tongue can be extended far beyond the end of the bill. Some of the birds that frequent the mountains of southeast Arizona are shown below. The best time to see them is in April through October. And this is also a good time to get your feeder up if you'd like to see some of these winged wonders.

Hummingbirds at feeder

Hummingbirds at feeder

Reasonably priced plastic hummingbird feeders are available in the garden department of stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe's etc. The nectar you need to fill them with can be made very inexpensively at home. The easy method described by Sheri Williamson of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory is given below:

Put 1 1/3 cup of water into a 2-cup microwave-safe vessel, stir in 1/3 cup white, granulated sugar and microwave on high for 2-3 minutes. The sugar will dissolve into a clear liquid. Cool well before filling the feeders. Makes about 12 ounces. This will fill the average small feeder. If you are just starting and don't have many regular customers just yet, try using two small feeders, each of which you fill about half full. This will allow you to clean the feeders every 3 days as recommended without wasting a lot of food.

Although many commercial hummingbird foods use a red coloring, this is not necessary; red coloring on the feeder itself is all that is needed. (The recipe above is included in Sheri's excellent book, Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds, published by T. F. H. Publications and available at many local bookstores and from Amazon.com)

Allen's hummingbird, USFWS photo by Lee Karney

Allen's Hummingbird,
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lee Karney

Anna's hummingbird feeding on aloe, USFWS photo by Lee Karney

Anna's Hummingbird feeding on aloe,
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lee Karney

Anna's Hummingbird,
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Stephen Tuttle

Anna's Hummingbird on Nest,
USFWS photo by Jim Rorabaugh

Bats at the feeder
In southeastern Arizona hummingbird feeders may be visited during the night by nectar-drinking bats that cross over into the U.S. from Mexico, where they have their main population centers. If you find your hummingbird feeder drained absolutely dry at dawn for several days running, you have probably been visited by these bats.

Sphinx Moths
White-lined sphinx moth, USFWS photo by Jim RorabaughAnother creature that occasionally masquerades as a hummingbird is the Sphinx or Hawk Moth. These large-bodied insects favor the same plants that hummingbirds love and hover in front of flowers in the daylight collecting nectar through their long, beak-like tongues. From a distance they can be mistaken for the tiny birds. Sphinx Moths, however, do have six legs and antennae and fur-like coat of scales. The larva of these moths are hornworms and some of them feed on tomato plants, so check your tomatoes for caterpillars if you see these moths in your yard! (I learned that the hard way.) The photo is of a White-lined Sphinx Moth and was taken by Jim Rorabaugh of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Attracting hummingbirds with plants
If you would like to attract even more of these birds to your garden, try planting some of their favorite plants. Below are two lists--one of native southwestern plants enjoyed by hummingbirds and the other of cultivated plants that you can plant to attract these beautiful creatures to your yard.

Native:
Bush penstemon, agave, ocotillo, aloe, nicotiana (wild tobacco--easy to grow from seed), paloverde, yucca, manzanita, desert willow, creosote bush, beeplant (cleome), and painted cup.

Rufous hummingbird, USFWS photo by Dean E. Biggins

Rufous Hummingbird,
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dean E. Biggins

Cultivated:
Gladiolus, petunia, butterfly bush (buddlieia), salvia, iris, fuchsia, nasturtium, columbine, canna, mimosa, acacia, geranium, begonia, clematis, lantana, phlox, rose, chinaberry, oleander, scarlet runner bean, portulaca and lima bean.

In the dietary study made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and published by Martin, Zim, and Nelson in their guide to wildlife food habits,* they report that stomach examinations of 230 hummingbirds showed almost nothing but insects. Though the theory that the nectar is probably rapidly assimilated can account for the absence of nectar in the stomach, the results would seem to suggest that insects may be a more important part of the diet of the hummingbird than one commonly imagines. Insects that are eaten most often are small flies, ants, bees, and beetles.

Recommended reading:

Recommended reading
Hummingbirds

Burns, Jim. Jim Burns' Arizona Birds: From the Backyard to the Backwoods. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008. This book, which concentrates on the hard to find species avid birders can pursue only in Arizona, has an excellent selection on hummingbirds with specific tips on where in the state to look for the Berylline, the Violet-crowned, the Lucifer sheartail, Broad-billed, White-eared, Blue-throated, Magnificent, Plain-capped starthroat and Costa's Hummingbirds.

Chambers, Nina et al. Pollinators of the Sonoran Desert: A Field Guide. Tucson: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2004. Good information on the most common Arizona hummingbirds: Anna's, Black-chinned, Broad-billed, and Rufous. There are also excellent descriptions and photos of Lesser long-nosed bat and Mexican long-tongued bat, the nectar-bats that frequent hummingbird feeders.

Johnsgard, Paul A. The Hummingbirds of North America, Second edition. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. This is a thoroughly revised edition of Johngard's classic work originally published in 1983. It covers comparative biology of hummingbirds and provides detailed natural histories of 47 species along with maps of the range of each species.

Kaufman, Lynn Hasler. Hummingbirds of the American West. Tucson, AZ, Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2005.

Roth, Sally (contributing editor). Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterfiles, (Ortho's All About series). Des Moines, IA, Meredith Books, 2001.

Tekiela, Stan. Amazing Hummingbirds: Unique Images and Characteristics. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, 2010.

Williamson, Sheri. Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications, Inc., 2000.

_______________. A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America (Peterson Field Guides, Turtleback edition) Houghton Mifflin, 2002. If you're serious about identifying hummingbirds this book is just what you need.

General birding and flower books

Alderfer, Jonathan (ed.). National Geographic Field Guide to Birds: Arizona/New Mexico . Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006. This handy, really pocket-size (4x6) guide includes most of the birds you're likely to see in Arizona. In addition to a photo, it includes information about behavior, habitat and specific local sites where you are likely to find the bird.

Epple, Anne Orth. A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona . Helena, MT: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 1995. More than 800 excellent photos and complete descriptions of plants.

Hassler, Lynn. Birds of the American Southwest, Expanded Edition (Wild West). Tucson: Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2008.

Gray, Mary Taylor. Watchable Birds of the Southwest. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1995. Large color photos of the birds you are most likely to spot.

Jaeger, Edmund C. Desert Wild Flowers. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

_______________. Desert Wildlife. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1950, 1961. Excellent descriptions of desert birds and animals in an easygoing style which will appeal to readers of all ages.

*Martin, Alexander C. et al. American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. New York: Dover Publications, 1961. Extensive compilation of information gathered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

McMillon, Bill. Birding Arizona. Helena, Montana: Falcon Press Publishing Company, 1995. Gives 45 specific birding locations with maps and lists of the birds to be found at each one.

Sibley, David Allen. Sibley's Birding Basics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Information on how to get started in birding.

______________. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. A complete guide to identifying birds of the U.S.

______________. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Includes general information about birds along with detailed descriptions of the adaptations and life patterns of the bird families of North America.