Hummcoming: Fast, little birds soon to arrive

March 31, 2013
photo - Rufous hummingbird in flight Photo by
Rufous hummingbird in flight Photo by  

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 Inc. nature shops, based in Carmel, Ind.

Although hummingbirds are not traditional pets in the sense that they cannot be caged, clothed or leashed, enthusiasts consider the tiny colorful birds as pets that they feed, watch and fuss over.

It’s illegal to sell or keep a hummingbird as a pet, but people who put out food and feeders and make their properties bird-friendly care about them like pets, Schaust said.

A good reason why a hummingbird shouldn’t be caged like canaries or parakeets is that it would die if it weren’t free to fly and feed, said Dr. Laurie Hess, a Bedford Hills, N.Y., veterinarian for birds and exotic pets. She has treated two rescued hummingbirds, one for an eye ulcer and one for a beak injury.

Anyone who wants to attract hummingbirds to their yard should avoid pesticides in their garden, since the birds need nectar and small bugs, and residue easily can be carried back to its nest, said Monique Rea of San Juan Capistrano, a volunteer hummingbird rehabilitator. Preparing for the return of the birds means carefully trimming trees and plants to avoid agitating a nest, she added.

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.

After making a yard hospitable, hummingbird watchers have few other responsibilities. Orphaned babies can be taken to rehabilitators, Rea said, but medical attention for injured birds is difficult for an animal that size.

Surgery on hummingbirds is unheard of, Hess said, adding that it’s a problem when the bandage weighs more than the patient.

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