Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gardening and Hummingbirds

Tender young fuchsias and other plants in our new garden.
This past weekend was the first when the weather was nice enough, and my roommate and I had time enough, to do some work in the yard.  And boy did it need it.  Spring has been slow to arrive here this year (I still don't think we've officially hit 60 degrees in Seattle) and the rain has been omnipresent.  Plus there have  been so many distractions -- paying the rent and keeping the car running and dumb stuff like that.  This weekend, however, we finally got around to it.  

Starting on Saturday, while I worked inside my roommate began cleaning up the storage area and some of the flower beds in the front yard.  Then, on Sunday, we paid a visit to our local nursery.  Because of the cooler weather some of the plants that people would normally be planting at this time of year haven't come in yet.  My roommate wanted tomatoes, for instance, but they haven't arrived at the nurseries.  We did pick up a variety of flowers and decorative plants though -- a mix of pansies, linaria, begonias, and wildflowers.  (This adds a new morning task to my routine, in addition to walking the dogs and checking the bird feeders:  pull slugs off the plants and toss them into the grass on the other side of the sidewalk, where they can't get back.)  Most importantly to me, though, are the fuchsias.  My goal in gardening is very simple:  I want to attract hummingbirds.

If you look closely here, you can see her long tongue sticking out past her beak.  Hummingbirds use this tongue to drink nectar. 
Here in Western Washington we have two species of hummingbirds -- one a migrant and one a year round resident.   For a long time I had this idea in my head (don't ask my where I got it) that our resident Anna's Hummingbirds were the "small guys" and that the migrant Rufus Hummingbirds were bigger.  As with so many things we "know" that turns out to be not the case at all.  (I'm a little hampered on this posting, because I haven't seen any Rufus hummingbirds this year -- they should be back, but if they've visited my yard, it was when I wasn't looking.  For that reason, I don't have any Rufus photos to share yet.  Also, the male Anna's hummingbird that lives in my area, though he does come to the feeder, has proved much more elusive to the camera than the female.  I hope to have some more photos of him to share soon, as well.)

Anna's Hummingbirds were named by René Primevère Lesson (March 20, 1794 - April 28, 1849), a French surgeon and explorer, who was also the first European naturalist to see Birds of Paradise in their native habitat.  He named the hummingbird for Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli, who was Mistress of the Household to Empress Eugenie in the mid to late 19th century.  They are the only hummingbirds in North  America to have a ruby crown -- the males have a bright red head and throat, while the females have a green crown with red visible on their throats and upper crowns.  They average about 3.9 inches in length with a wingspan of about 4.7 inches, and they weigh between one and two tenths of an ounce.  In terms of size, this puts Anna's on a par with Bushtits and small chickadees.  The males are known for their mating and territorial displays, often "dive bombing" other males and even animals as large as dogs or humans.  

A couple of weeks ago I was out on the deck with my roommate and my two dogs, watching the hummingbird feeders.  Generally, the Anna's don't pay a lot of attention to humans, don't seem to consider us much of a threat.  I've even changed the feeder with a hummingbird hovering only a few feet away from me.  That day, however, one of the males must have decided that two humans and two large dogs was too much.  Before I realized what was happening, he flew straight up into the air, and streaked down again, flashing by right in front of my face.  I was being warned.  The fierceness of hummingbirds is legendary.

Hummingbirds have such vibrant, iridescent colors because -- in many species -- the color is produced not just by pigment in the feathers, but by the special property of the feathers that act as prisms, splitting the light and reflecting certain wavelengths back to the viewer.  This creates the brilliance of hummingbird hues, and also explains the variability in color of hummingbirds viewed from different angles.  The male Anna's hummingbird, for instance, has a bright read "hood", but as he moves, depending on the angle of the light, the color can look very different.  Sometimes it even looks black.

Anna's hummingbirds are the only hummingbirds to winter over in the Northern climates.  They are able to find enough food in their native habitats to survive.  In  the winter, a bird will gain weight during the day, converting sugar into fat and storing this fat against the cold temperatures.  They can also wait out poor conditions by lowering their metabolic rates and going into a state of torpor.

It turns out, though, that the "little" Anna's hummingbird is actually the larger of our two species.  The Rufus hummingbird, which migrates in winter to the warmer areas of the South Eastern US and Mexico, are smaller.  Despite that, though, they are known for their territoriality and aggression, attacking much larger birds, and even chipmunks and squirrels.
But I'm still waiting for the first Rufus sighting this year.  My fuchsias are planted, and I'm putting up new feeders, so I hope that the word will get out.

I'll keep you posted.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't have any idea that H's could be so aggressive. Thanks for the beautiful pics!