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Garden Wise: The Enchanted Hummingbird

A hummingbird feeding.

One of my fondest memories of early childhood is that of my mother at bedtime, reading from two classic works: “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and those of Hans Christian Andersen. Those tales introduced my sisters and me to a world of enchanted beings, of magic spells and fairy dust. Those stories imbued everything around us with mystery and magical potential.

Those days are past, never to return. Today, I live in the grownup world of pedestrian reality, practical, matter of fact, no-nonsense. Fairies, elves, and occasional good-hearted trolls have receded into the gossamer mists of memory.

However, each year one thing breaks through that seemingly impenetrable wall of ordinary reality and brings back the thrill of enchantment, that is the first spring sighting of a hummingbird at our honeysuckle or clematis vines. Each year I find myself transfixed, mesmerized. Hummingbirds are enchanted. They appear out of nowhere, frozen in air, their wings beating so fast they appear motionless.

Their beautifully colored and chiseled bodies are small, improbably small, Tinker-Bell small. The smallest hummingbird in North America, the Calliope, weighs no more than two paper clips.

No hummingbirds live permanently in our area. These are migrating birds. We see them only when we are on their migration route. Most hummingbirds winter in Mexico or central America and summer in Canada or Alaska. Their migration path generally follows a wide track along the Continental Divide. They follow the spine of the Rockies as they migrate north and south. The Rockies are higher than surrounding land and catch more precipitation, which translates into more flowers below. The migrating hummingbirds follow that flower highway along the Rockies.

Orioles, flycatchers, small hawks, falcons, snakes and lizards will all prey on a hummingbird if opportunity presents itself. In city lots, cats are a constant threat. Hummingbirds are so small that even wasps, praying mantises and frogs can make a meal of them.

Their lives are short and fast. According to Dr. William Calder’s banding research, females live on average 3 ½ years and males 2 ½. They have the fastest metabolism of any bird or mammal. Their wings can beat 50 to 60 times per second. No wonder they look like they aren’t moving. Their oxygen use is 50 times greater than our own. They must eat and drink two to three times their body weight each day just to keep going. They are voracious drinkers, requiring massive nectar. According to Dr. Peter Scott, hummingbirds will visit two to five thousand flowers a day. To conserve energy at night they can go into a state of hibernation-like torpor, dramatically lowering energy consumption.

The most common hummingbirds we will see in south-central Idaho are black-chinned, rufous, calliope and broad-tailed. Sightings usually begin around mid-May as the birds are heading north with the last annual sightings in mid-September as they are working their way back to Mexico.

Hummingbirds are important pollinators, and at least 60 native flowers have been identified that depend entirely on hummingbirds for pollination. Throughout the U.S., the most popular flowers for attracting hummingbirds are trumpet vine, twinberry and the columbines. Trumpet vine flowers provide more nectar than any other flowering plant. Hummingbirds favor large, colorful, tubular flowers and have almost no sense of smell. Though showing a clear preference for red, they will drink from flowers of many colors.

Although we have trumpet vines on our property, I have seen more hummingbird action on our honeysuckle and clematis vines. Hummingbirds seek a large assortment of flowers. According to the Pollinator Partnership website, other preferred plants in our area include wild hawthorn, delphinium, Camas, lupine, chokecherry, golden currant, scarlet paintbrush, firecracker penstemon, bee balm, garden phlox, butterfly bush and rose of Sharon.

Hummingbird populations are declining. Loss of habitat, pesticide poisoning and climate change are major factors. We can all help to save the hummingbirds. Try to incorporate hummingbird-friendly plants in your landscape. Go for large, colorful, tubular flowers. Vines can allow hummingbirds to feed above the reach of cats. Also, keep your property as chemical free as possible. Insecticides not only kill harmful insects but spiders and other insects that hummingbirds need for protein. Worse yet, hummingbirds can be poisoned themselves eating insects that have ingested insecticides. Finally, consider adding one or more hummingbird feeders to your property. This adds a feeding station for migrating hummingbirds and enables you to spend precious minutes watching these amazing birds.

I relish those all too few minutes and feel that shock of boyish wonder anytime a hummingbird graces our property. A single hummingbird can awaken my inner child and transform our backyard into an enchanted forest.

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Garden Wise is presented by the Magic Valley Master Gardener Association.

We will try to answer questions of general interest submitted by the community. Email questions to gardenwise@cableone.net.

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