For the Birds: Hummingbirds as a conversation starter

Hummingbirds are always a good conversation starter, especially in that time of year after the bird breeding season, but before fall migration begins. My last few columns on hummingbirds elicited a few responses from readers I’d like to share.

Similar to my “problem,” Mary Ellen from Keene has a territorial female hummingbird that keeps all other would-be visitors away. The feistiness of New England hummingbirds, however, pales in comparison to the rufous hummingbirds she observed at her daughter’s property in Colorado at 9,200 feet of elevation.

“This one bird kept all other hummers from feeding. I put up another feeder thinking that would solve the problem but instead of one territorial rufous, we ended up with two!” she wrote.

Mary Ellen did some research and discovered the migration route of the rufous hummingbird takes them over the Rocky Mountains when alpine flowers are in bloom. Sure enough, she wrote, the aggressive rufous hummingbirds left after two weeks and the other hummingbirds were free to enjoy the feeders again.

Mary Ellen also marveled at how far these tiny birds can fly during migration. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only hummingbird species that is regularly found east of the Mississippi River. They get to their territory, including New England, by flying nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico, a 500-mile journey that takes about 20 hours. Some hummingbirds, if they are lucky enough to find one, will stop and rest on a boat or oil rig.

Deb from Royalston, Massachusetts, said her six to 12 hummingbirds visit mostly at dawn and dusk.

Zaden commented on my website that: “In Japanese, they call them hachi-dori, ‘bee birds.” I love that word.”

Eunice wrote on my website: “I have three feeders and 30 healthy hummers here in N.H. but hundreds of flowers for them to enjoy. Yes, my visitors hop from one feeder to another, but they all get to feed. Many are babies. It was a good year for them.”

Don and Heidi Nowers from Westminster, Vermont, thought the rose of Sharon bush and nearby feeder would be enough to keep all of the hummingbirds content. Not so. “It appears that after the dominant hummer chases the little guys off, a couple of bees move onto the feeder. When Ruby comes back, it’s game on.” They wrote that the bees and bird chase each other and play a game of cat and mouse. They did once observe a bee and hummingbird sharing the feeder, proving there is enough to go around.

My house in the woods had a lot of rose of Sharon bushes growing wildly and the hummingbirds loved it. There are lists upon lists of the types of flowers hummingbirds are attracted to. I’ve found that hummingbirds will visit just about any bloom to see if it is a potential food source. Sure, they may prefer red, tubular blooms, but they’ll come to just about any flower, I have found.

Deborah from Fitzwilliam had similar thoughts about sharing the wealth when she purchased a second hummingbird feeder. Alas, instead of the birds sharing, Deborah is “still entertained by hummer wars.” Deborah also noted “that the hummingbirds’ warning of flying in an arch while it chirps is similar to a bumblebee’s warning?” I hadn’t noticed that before but will pay attention next time I see bumblebees acting territorially.

Thank you to all who wrote in and shared your stories. Let’s keep the conversation about nature going.

For the Birds: Hummingbird feeders feed other things as well

Photo by Brian Thoele – Brian Thoele of Norwalk, Conn., got this shot of a downy woodpecker on a hummingbird feeder.

Hummingbird feeders, as the name suggests, are meant to attract hummingbirds.

It’s right in the name “hummingbird feeder.”

But, as we all know, it attracts a lot more than hummingbirds. The most common invaders include yellowjackets, hornets, bees, and ants. However, hummingbird feeders also attract larger critters such as bats, squirrels, raccoons, and even bears.

The list doesn’t stop there as a few emails I received this week point out. Other birds enjoy a visit to a hummingbird feeder as well.

Downy woodpeckers are probably the most common other birds that visit hummingbird feeders. Michele from the Monadnock Region wrote in to share that two woodpeckers had dislodged five of the six yellow plastic inserts that go into the feeding ports. The plastic inserts are supposed to keep birds like woodpeckers away, but these woodpeckers found a way around it. Michele did her best to find the inserts and put them back, but the woodpeckers just popped them out again.

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For the Birds: Feisty hummingbirds steal the August show

Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder in Danbury, CT, summer 2015.

I’ve seen plenty of hummingbird feeders in New England with a dozen or more of the tiny birds zipping around the ports. 

I stayed at a small motel in Errol several years ago and was amazed at the hummingbird feeder near the office. The birds were constantly at the feeder, from sunup to sundown, and there were a lot of them. The birds were not necessarily cooperative with each other, but at least they were tolerant.

That has never been the case with hummingbirds that visit my yard. All of my hummingbirds are jerks. I’m joking, of course. They are just territorial. Very territorial.

Such is the case this year again. I saw a female hummingbird off and on throughout this spring and early summer. Over the last two weeks, however, I’ve seen her every day and several times each day. 

I’ve also seen a male a few times, but his visits to the feeder are short-lived. As soon as he settles onto the perch and dives his bill into the port, the female appears out of nowhere and buzzes right by his head. The male takes off for cover, followed by the female making sure he knows that the feeder is off limits.

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For the Birds: Scarlet tanagers can be elusive

Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

This has been the first spring/summer since I can remember in which I have not seen a scarlet tanager. I was hot on the trail of a few in the spring, but I never did spot the birds.

Granted, my birding this year has been hampered by foot ailments, but I have still spent enough time out there that I feel I should have seen one or two of these beauties.

The scarlet tanager is one of the most sought-after species in New England in the spring. Their electric red bodies with contrasting black wings make it one of our most unique and beautiful birds. The problem with tanagers is that they mostly hang around the tops of tall trees. Even a bird as bright as a teenager can remain hidden in a full canopy of oak or maple leaves.

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For the Birds: Chipping sparrow the source of the chirping

Photo by Chris Bosak A chipping sparrow perches on a garden stake in New England, July 2020. Merganser Lake.

The chirping was coming from the small tree right next to me. That much was clear. What wasn’t clear was where the bird was exactly or what type of bird it was. 

I looked among the leaves for a minute or two to no avail. Then the bird jumped down to a dead branch just above eye level. It was a chipping sparrow. If it had been singing instead of chirping/calling I would have recognized it without having to see it. I can recognize many calls or chips but apparently not the chipping sparrow’s.

I was glad the bird hopped down to offer a good look. Too many times to count I’ve zeroed in on a bird following its song or call only to have the bird eventually fly off with me never having seen it or identified it. It’s one of the more frustrating things when it comes to birdwatching. 

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For the Birds: Wrens, bobolinks and cranes (yes, cranes)

Photo by Chris Bosak – Bobolink in New England field.

House wrens and American goldfinches have been my main source of avian entertainment this past week.

Both of these birds nest, on average, later than most other songbirds. While birds such as phoebes and robins get started in March or April, house wrens and goldfinches start in late spring/early summer. I hear the disjointed, but still rather cheerful, song of the house wren every time I walk out my door. The goldfinches are more quiet, but highly visible in their bright yellow plumage going back and forth to the nest site.

Goldfinches feed their babies a vegetarian/seed diet so the early insect hatch that prompts so many other songbirds to nest is of no practical to goldfinches. Rather, they must wait until flowers to bloom and go to seed before raising their young. Their primary diet consists of milkweed, thistle and other “weeds.”

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For the Birds: Watching the babies grow

Photo by Chris Bosak — Three young eastern phoebes getting ready to fledge.

As big a thrill as it is to have a bird visit your backyard feeder, it’s an even bigger thrill to have a bird visit a birdbath in your yard. Having a bird land on and eat the dried seeds of a flower in your garden tops both the feeder and bath sighting, in my opinion anyway.

However, a bird nesting in your yard beats them all. Whether the bird makes its own nest in a tree or bush, or if the bird uses a birdhouse, there’s nothing like the thrill of watching birds grow from egg to hatchling to fledgling. 

The birds that nested in my yard this spring have all been very inconspicuous. I see tons of catbirds in my yard and several come around to scold me when I come out to use the grill or sit on the porch. A male cardinal usually joins the admonishment. But I haven’t found a single nest in the brush. 

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For the Birds: Crows and their deserved reputation

Photo by Chris Bosak An American crow in Danbury, CT, winter 2019.

It’s like clockwork.

At 6:45 p.m. the crows glide in and land on the upper branches of the mostly dead, huge maple tree in the front yard.

It’s not a massive number of crows like you’d see in the winter at dusk; rather, it’s a small gathering. First two adults land, then two youngsters follow. They sound a few seemingly innocent caws, but their disagreeable reputation as egg-eaters precedes them.

The crows’ arrival puts the other birds in the neighborhood on alarm. Robins sound off from the surrounding trees but remain out of view. Cardinals, also unseen, use their high chip alert calls to keep in contact with each other. Orioles join in but keep their distance.

Blue jays and grackles are more aggressive in their attempts to drive the crows away from the neighborhood. The blue jays squawk and dive-bomb. More jays emerge from the trees and join the effort.

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For the Birds: Baby birds: Sometimes the best way to help is to do nothing

Photo by Chris Bosak Young Barn Swallows beg for food as a parent returns to the nest with a morsel in this June 2012 file photo.
Photo by Chris Bosak, Young Barn Swallows beg for food as a parent returns to the nest with a morsel.

Here’s a follow-up to a recent column I did about helping birds in the summer. It seems that I missed a few important tips.

I received a text message from a friend last week after she found two baby birds on her deck. They had recently fallen out of a birdhouse she has hanging near the house. What to do with the babies? It’s a question I get fairly often in late spring and early summer.

If you come across baby birds that have fallen out of the nest, the best thing to do is put them back in the nest. That is assuming you know where the nest is, of course. In my friend’s case, she did know and she placed the baby birds back into the house. The mother returned shortly thereafter and all seems to be good.

That advice may surprise some people because the old adage was that you should never touch a baby bird because the mother will reject any baby that has been touched by a human. Birds do not have a great sense of smell (well, most birds anyway) so they will not abandon a baby that was touched. Besides, a mother or father bird has no way of getting the baby back into the next.

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For the Birds: Bluebirds, windows and houses

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird gets a drink from a birdbath in New England, February 2020.

I’ve been getting quite a few emails about bluebirds lately. I see that as a good sign about the rebounding eastern bluebird population.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s, my go-to website for information about North American birds, says the eastern bluebird is a species of “low concern.” The site reads, “Eastern Bluebird populations fell in the early twentieth century as aggressive introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made available nest holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to hold on to. In the 1960s and 1970s, establishment of bluebird trails and other nest-box campaigns alleviated much of this competition, especially after people began using nest boxes designed to keep out the larger European Starling. Eastern Bluebird numbers have been recovering since.”

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