Who is the little jewel of the bird world? What bird can fly faster than a fighter jet (relative to size)? What group of birds is called a shimmer? The answer to all of these is the hummingbird-- a brightly colored jewel that graces our gardens with their iridescence and busy buzzing.
Anna's hummingbirds are the most common hummingbird along our western coast. Early in the 20th century, they were found only in southern California and northern Baja California. As exotic flowering trees rich with nectar were planted to the north, Anna’s were able to expand their range. They now can be found as far north as Vancouver, Canada.
With iridescent emerald feathers covering their body and rosy-pink gorget (pronounced "gorjet"), they are flying jewels. Even the female has a red spot on her neck where most female hummingbirds of other species do not.
These little jewels weigh less than a nickel, can flap their wings 50-60 times per second, and travel about 90 feet per second which is the highest speed ever recorded for a vertebrate, relative to size. Relative to size, a hummingbird can fly faster than a fighter jet! Calling them a B-52 bomber is right on target. We would pass out if we were subject to the g-forces these little birds can tolerate.
Anna's hummingbirds are just about 4 inches long and have a wingspan of just over 4.5 inches. Mostly green and gray, the male has iridescent rosy-pink feathers on its head and throat. But you only see that bright color when these feathers are in direct sunlight, otherwise they appear dull brown or gray.
Everyone knows Anna's hummingbirds eat nectar and sugar water from the feeders we put out for them. And they can lap up the nectar at 15-20 laps per second. But their diet is actually a bit more varied than that. They eat a variety of insects plucking them from the air, or picking them from leaves and branches. They will eat smaller insects like midges, whiteflies, leaf hoppers and small spiders. They will also sip tree sap and insects stuck in sap from holes made by sapsuckers.
Male Anna’s courting display takes about 12 seconds. At first, he hovers, then climbs straight up to 131 feet, then dives down vertically, ending with a loud squeak and then flies in an arc back to the beginning. If the sun is out, he orients the dive so his brightly colored gorget sparkles in the sunlight. The “squeak” at the end of the dive is actually created by air moving through his tail feathers.
The female Anna is solely responsible for raising the young. She takes about a week to build a nest of plant down and spider webs. The nest is about the size of a half-dollar! She lays two eggs that incubate for 16 days, then it is another 20 days for the young to fledge.
At night, or during the day when very cold, hummingbird’s go into a state called torpor. During torpor, their metabolism drops by as much as 95 percent, their heart rate drops significantly, as does their body temperature. This allows the hummingbird to conserve energy and survive during cold spells.
Birds can see better than we do. Hummingbird’s can see into the ultraviolet spectrum which allows them to see warm shades better than cooler shades. It was thought that hummingbirds preferred red over other colors because of this type of vision which allows them to easily see orange, yellow and red flowers. Science has shown that it is the richness of the nectar that draws them rather than the color.
Attract hummingbirds to your garden by planting salvia, penstemons, zinnias, bee balms, daylilies and petunias. You can also make your own nectar with one part sugar to four parts water. Boil the water, add the sugar, still until dissolved, and let it cool. Remember to change it frequently as hot weather will cause the nectar to spoil.
There are 340 species of hummingbirds and they all live in North and South America. Only 15 are regularly found in the US. Of those 15, we can see five in our area: Allen’s, Anna’s, Black-chinned, Calliope, Costa’s, and Rufous, though only Anna’s are here year-round.
What do you call a flock of hummingbirds? They probably have the best group name of any bird. Choose from: bouquet, a glittering, a hover, a shimmer, or a tune of hummingbirds. Which will you choose?
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.