Hummers head south in September

Monday September 24, 2012


The hummers have left. Our hummers. If any show up at the one remaining feeder, we'll know they are Vermont hummers who left their second homes when ours did and are just now getting here.

We miss them. This was the summer of letting the dog put his front paws on a chair in front of the kit chen window and bark at those pesky chipmunks -- but not at the hummingbirds, which perched to feed less than two feet above his head.

It took awhile, but Tracer is both smart and eager to please. So by August, he would stare, fascinated, while hummers came and went, instead of leaping at the window and scaring them off. The screen he hits, which is on the inside, has several patches where his paws have struck in the attempt to get at a bird that needs far more food per pound of body weight than he does.

We thought the hummingbird population was sparse in the early spring, but two nearby neighbors also have feeders, so it's hard to tell. But when the new birds fledged, we suddenly needed air traffic control.

They were feeding two at a time, with others coming down the runway before the track was clear. Their antics made it clear that these were the offspring They may be a bit duller in color, hard to say, but they are the same size as their parents by the time they reach the sugar water feeders. The difference is that they play.

While they ate, at least one male hummingbird was doing his swoop-and-buzz routine, showing off for not only the adult females but the new brood as well. If only he were nicer. It turns out that while he's gorgeous, especially when a shaft of sun hits his red throat feathers, he's not the best of fathers. He pushes the females aside when he wants to eat, and he heads south in late August, leaving the women and children to shift for themselves.

We know that our ruby-throated hummingbird is the only regular hummer here because the other varieties can't manage that flight across the Gulf of Mexico -- some 600 miles over water, non-stop.

What we have never understood is how they find their way, either way.

We know ours come back specifically to us because of that mortifying year when a male hummer flew back and forth, back and forth, outside the kitchen window looking for food. We had neglected to put up the feeders on time. But guilt was overcome by the excitement of realizing that the little bird was looking for our house and knew where it was.

Knowing that it could not be happenstance, we were delighted to read about the work of two researchers in Texas, who have concluded that certain cells in a bird's brain record details of the earth's magnetic field and therefore have a built-in GPS system.

One of the lessons here is that you can't insult anyone by calling them a bird brain. Instead, that label would tag them as geniuses. Birds are very, very smart, and this new study zeroes in on a specific area of their intelligence.

According to The New York Times report on the research, birds detect a magnetic field and then compare the information with some kind of stored mapping. Scientists are beginning to think that it's cells in the bird's ear that are detecting the magnetic fields.

In all likelihood, then, some family in Mexico hosts our ruby-throated hummers for the winter and sees them fly off in early spring, always meeting their first week of May arrival time here. They leave with precision also, the first week in September -- except for an occasional rebel. A teenager, perhaps.

Ruth Bass feeds hummers in summer and other birds only when the bears are sleeping.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions