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Your garden's most amazing visitors.

For naturalist Mary McWhorter, the delight of watching hummingbirds was defined one day by a Chinese visitor to Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon, California. She watched as the old man slowly climbed to the sanctuary's bird-viewing porch, then waited expectantly near a feeder. He'd come from a continent that has no hummingbirds--they're native only to the Americas. As if on cue, an Anna's hummingbird zipped up, wings ablur and feathers flashing red and green in the sun. After a moment at the feeder, the little bird darted off. Astonished, the visitor bowed from the waist repeatedly in the feeders direction, saying softly, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." McWhorter still isn't sure whether he was thanking her or the bird.

Drawing birders from all over the world and inspiring Westerners to design gardens around their needs, how do hummingbirds captivate so completely? Maybe it's size--some are hardly bigger than large moths. Or in-flight aerobatics: they can rocket straight up, swoop straight down. fly backward or upside down, and hover with ease, outmaneuvering anything else in the sky. As avian top guns that regularly pick off insects in midflight, they're natural weapons in a gardener's arsenal against insect pests.

Depending on what migrates past where you live, you might sec any of 18 species of hummingbirds. Seven--Allen's, Anna's, back-chinned, broad-tailed, calliope, Costa's, and rufous--are fairly widespread in the West. Our maps show summer ranges for all these but Costa's; it and the other 11 live mostly in Southwest deserts and mountains. The ruby-throated is the only hummer that breeds in the East. From the Mexican border to Argentina, some 300 other species occur.

Look closely around your garden: you may find one of the birds' egg-cup nests--often in some precarious, fairly public spot like the top of a ripening orange or woven into foliage at the end of a redwood branch. Hummingbirds make five or six feeding forays per hour; between forays, males usually go to a lookout perch, occasionally buzzing out to defend their territory from other hummers.

To invite passing hummingbirds into your garden this summer, try hanging up a feeder or two. In fall, you can set out plants whose blooms will attract them again next year.

Migration: traveling light and far

Small and light, most hummingbirds are well suited to long-distance migration. Only Costa's and Anna's remain in the West year-round. Anna's, the commonest hummingbird in California, is now expanding its winter range into Texas and mild parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Why the expansion? According to naturalist David Hutchinson, who studied Seattle's overwintering Anna's hummingbirds under a grant from the American Museum of Natural History, "There are now lots of feeders around to attract them. And Anna's hummingbirds are among the most insectivorous of hummingbirds: when the nectar supply drops, they simply eat more. Exotic, winter-blooming plants can help, too; I've watched Anna's hummingbirds feed on the flowers of strawberry tree and Fuchsia magellanica in December."

In late winter, most hummingbirds head out of Mexico for flower-rich breeding grounds to the north. All 18 species cross the border. Only a few (Anna's, black-chinned, calliope, rufous, and ruby-throated) make it clear to Canada. Some rufous hummingbirds, the marathoners of the hummingbird world, make it all the way to southeast Alaska, 2,000 miles north; they start their journey by following ocotillo and Justicia bloom as it moves northward across the Southwest desert. For other hummingbirds, migration is a much smaller range, measured in hundreds, not thousands, of miles.

The farther south you are, the more migrating species you're likely to see. In general, hummingbirds migrate north through the lowlands, and south (from July on) through both lowlands and mountains, where wildflowers bloom latest.

They live to eat, but it doesn't show

Hummingbirds, along with bats and shrews, have the world's smallest warm-blooded bodies and blast-furnace metabolic rates. To fuel such prodigious energy demands, they need huge amounts of food--equal to 155,000 calories per day for a human. They also need efficient tools--needle bills and long tongues--for gathering it. The bill is like a case for the tongue: it lets the bird probe narrow-necked flowers before the long tongue takes over.

Besides nectar, hummingbirds need protein, which they get by eating spiders and insects. (One gardener watched an Anna's hummingbird rush a zucchini plant to scare up whiteflies, then zoom back to pick them off in midair.) They need about half their weight in food every day.

Hummingbirds as pollinators

In 1709, American naturalist John Lawson noted that the hummingbird "is feather'd as a Bird, and gets his Living as the Bees, by sucking the Honey from each Flower." As a hummingbird probes a flower for nectar, another benefit occurs: its head and bill pick up pollen that can fertilize other flowers.

Some plants are especially suited to pollination by hummingbirds; on their flowers, pollen-bearing anthers hang between the bird and the nectar--but too far outside the corolla to brush nectar-seeking bees. Woolly blue curls is a good example. Classic hummingbird flowers have mostly red, odorless, trumpet-shaped blossoms that limit competition from insects. (Bees, for example, don't see red, do use fragrance to find flowers, and are too fat to enter narrow flower tubes.) But exclusive plant-to-bird relationships are rare. According to Hutchinson, "There are lots of red, tubular flowers in the West that benefit hummingbirds and benefit from them, but exclusive, one-to-one relationships are harder to prove."

Flowers that attract them

Your garden can give hummingbirds much of what they need if you stock it with flowers that bloom when hummers are in town. Use our range maps to learn which birds summer in your area. Then ask a neighbor who feeds them to tell you when the birds show up and when they depart.

While hummingbirds are great opportunists and visit a huge array of plants--including exotics and natives with flowers in all shapes, sizes, colors, and degrees of fragrance--they favor some plants. Pictured at the bottom of pages 72 and 73 are eight of the best; we list other favorites below. Not all plants grow in all parts of the West; your nursery probably carries the best ones for your area.

Perennials and annuals. Columbine (several Aquilegia), coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea), gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata), monkey flower (Mimulus cardinalis), bee balm (Monarda didyma and M. citriodora), penstemon (several), sage (try Salvia elegans, S. greggii, S. splendens), and bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae).

Shrubs. Flowering maple (Abutilon), flowering quince (Chaenomeles hybrids), fuchsia (F. hybrida and F. magellanica), Chinese hibiscus (H. rosa-sinensis), shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana), chuparosa (J. californica), tree tobacco (Nicotiana g]auca), red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), and salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis).

Vines. Bougainvillea, trumpet vines (Campsis), cardinal climber (Ipomoea quamoclit), lantana (L. montevidensis), honeysuckle (several Lonicera), flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta), and Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis).

At the feeder: dinner's on you

Feeders are most exciting during breeding season, when males fight off competitors. They're most relied upon in winter (in mild climates), when there's little else for hummingbirds to eat, and most patronized during migration, when large numbers of birds pass through. Pictured above are four widely available kinds.

To keep ants away from feeders, spread petroleum jelly around the hook from which the feeder hangs. For defense against bees and wasps, buy a feeder with a plastic mesh guard over ends of feeder tubes. For nectar that's almost identical to what the birds find in the wild, use the recipe above. According to ornithologist William Calder, who's studying rufous hummingbirds under a grant from the National Geographic Society, "Birds generally go for sucrose-based nectar, while insects go for glucose- and fructose-based nectar." Since you're trying to feed hummingbirds--not competing bees and wasps--stick with nectar made from white granulated sugar (sucrose) and water. You don't need to add food coloring to the brew (the feeders' red plastic attracts them just as well). And don't substitute honey for sugar; it can transmit a tongue fungus to birds,

Where to stand nose to beak with hummers

To see a variety of hummingbirds up close and to learn more about them, visit one of the West's two hummingbird aviaries or go on a birding tour. Aviaries listed here are planted with hummingbird flowers you can grow in your garden; the birds breed in both places, so you might see nests.

San Diego Zoo. The Kenton C. Lint Hummingbird Aviary features non-native hummingbirds. Among them are some of the world's smallest hummers (the 3-inch purple-throated woodstar from Ecuador and Peru). In the zoo is the world's largest hummingbird (the 9-inch giant hummingbird from the Andes). You'll also see two natives here: Costa's and broadbilled. Zoo hours are 9 to 5 daily; admission is $12, $4 for ages 3 through 15.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson. The hummingbird aviary includes 10 Sonoran Desert species. Of the West's most widespread species, only Allen's, which is almost identical to rufous, is missing. The museum is open 7:30 to 6 daily; admission is $7.95, $1.50 for ages 6 through 12.

Hummingbird tours. Several 4- to 10-day summer trips can take you to see a wide variety of Western hummingbirds in the wild, mostly in southeastern Arizona. For details, write or call Goldeneye Nature Tours, Box 30416, Flagstaff, Ariz. 86003, (602) 773-1744; and Wings, Inc., Box 31930, Tucson 85751, (602) 749-1967.
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Title Annotation:hummingbirds
Author:McCausland, Jim
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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