For the Birds: Hummingbirds and cuckoos

Photo by Chris Bosak A female ruby-throated hummingbird sits on a rope in a backyard in New England, August 2020.

I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed watching the hummingbirds ignore the stormy weather of Aug. 4 and visit the feeders. As you’ll recall, last week I wrote about the tiny birds going about their day as usual as rain fell and wind whipped all around.

I heard from Deb from Royalston, Mass., who said her hummingbirds “had no problem with the fierce winds and rain. All this year’s babies are there now, so we had more than a dozen.” She said it was hard to count them there were so many. I, of course, had only one visit my feeder that day as it was a dominant female who “owns” the feeder.

Jill from Keene wrote: “I too was amazed during the storm the hummingbirds seemed unfazed.” Jill also had a peaceful gathering of hummingbirds and sent me a few photos showing six of them on the feeder at once.

“They did not fight much at all and it was eerily quiet as I usually have several swooping and ‘chirping’ noisily,” Jill added.

A few days later, Jill wrote to say: “The peaceful dinner party was really an anomaly, as they are back to fighting and chasing each other!”

John and Joanne of Dover noted: “We also found that sometimes hummers don’t show up when you expect them — we have two of them now visiting our feeder.” They also had a pair of house wrens that raised two broods this summer. They are hoping to see a third. “They aren’t ‘melodious’ but are fun to have around ‘bubbling’ and ‘fussing’ as our book describes them.” I would agree with that.

I can count on one hand the number of times readers have emailed me to say they are seeing cuckoos. Last week, I received two emails from the Monadnock Region reporting cuckoo sightings.

“Have you noticed an abundance of cuckoos this year?” Amy from Harrisville wrote. “I seem to hear them in a lot of places that I never noticed them before. I’ve had them in my yard here and there over the years, but this year one (or more?) has been in my woods all summer.”

Amy noted it was a yellow-billed cuckoo. Black-billed cuckoos also live in New England.

The next day, Linda from Swanzey sent in a photo of a yellow-billed cuckoo that she saw in her backyard. “I’ve lived in this area pretty much my whole life but I’ve never seen or heard such a bird,” she wrote.

Cuckoos are rather large, thin birds with longish bills and interesting songs. Both cuckoos found in New England are occasional nest parasites, similar to brown-headed cowbirds. They do, however, usually build their own nest and raise their own young.

Here’s an interesting tidbit I found on allaboutbirds.org: Yellow-billed cuckoos practice “asynchronous” egg laying, meaning they do not lay their eggs all at once, but rather as many as five days apart. The oldest chick is almost ready to leave the nest when the youngest is hatching.

Theories on the benefits of asynchronous egg laying include: brood reduction for when food is scarce (the oldest gets all the food), the mother is able to provide each egg with sufficient nutrients without depleting herself, and reduced predation as all chicks are not in the nest at once. I also read that, sadly, the youngest (last to hatch) rarely survives.

The bird world is fascinating indeed.

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