The world’s smallest bird can take up a big chunk of a person’s spring to-do list: Trim the trees, weed the garden, make the nectar and hang the feeders.
With the beginning of spring, hummingbirds are making their way north after migrations that took many of them more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. They will return to the same yards where they have stayed in the past.
“They are fascinating. I call them nature’s miracle. They have all these disadvantages (size, enemies, flying solo), yet they are thriving and have all these incredible abilities,” said John Schaust, chief naturalist for Wild Birds Unlimited nature shops, based in Carmel, Ind.
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Although hummingbirds are not pets, enthusiasts feed, watch and fuss over the tiny colorful birds.
Every spring, for instance, Schaust fields calls from people worried that not all of the hummingbirds that lived in their yards will return.
“They say last year they had six and this year there is only one. They want to know if they got hurt, if they were caught in a hurricane,” he said.
A hummingbird has to visit between 200 and 1,000 flowers a day to survive, depending on the size of the bird and amount of nectar in the flower, said Ethan Temeles, a professor of biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Nectar is available in many stores, along with bird feeders, but concoctions can be made at home with four parts water to one part sugar, Schaust said.
Hummingbird numbers are unknown, but Schaust estimated it to be in the hundreds of millions, though they are only found in North, Central and South America. They can live three to five years.
If you want hummingbirds in your yard, avoid pesticides, because the birds need nectar and small bugs, and residue can easily be carried back to its nest, said Monique Rea of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., a volunteer hummingbird rehabilitator. Preparing for the return of the birds means carefully trimming trees and plants to avoid agitating a nest, she added.
It might seem like a lot of work for a bird that weighs just a tenth of an ounce, but devotees say the rewards are handsome — among them watching their flight. Hummingbirds flap their wings 20 to 80 times a second in a figure-eight motion to get lift going up and coming down.
They can fly forward, backward, right side up and upside down, making them “one of few birds who can fly backward and the only one that can sustain flight backward,” Schaust said.
Spring is an ideal time to watch for them, because it coincides with one of the birds’ two mating seasons. Females build walnut-sized nests or redecorate last year’s, Schaust said, in a process that takes six to 10 days. The nests are reinforced with spider-web silk, so some homeowners might see the tiny birds in the eaves of homes collecting webs, he said.
To camouflage the nest, the mother covers the outside with lichen from tree trunks and glues it on with tree sap. If a nest breaks before the hummingbirds return, it can be rebuilt by humans.
“Hummingbirds have no sense of smell, so the mother won’t have any problem with you touching the baby. You can even rebuild a nest if it was destroyed,” Rea said.