The Compleat Naturalist
By Laura & Hal Mahan
We were sitting on our back porch one hot summer day enjoying the afternoon breeze. Every few minutes a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visited the feeder a few feet from us. She sipped from the feeder and then methodically flew to the same exact spot high in the oak tree that dominates our backyard. Suddenly it occurred to us. She’s got a nest in that oak tree!
We ran inside and retrieved the ever-ready binoculars. The next time she flew away from the feeder we focused in on the spot and, sure enough, there she was, sitting on her lichen-covered nest perched atop a lichen-covered branch.
This is a rather remarkable feat, finding the nest that is, but the nest itself is even more remarkable. Hummingbird nests average only two inches in diameter, and the materials are woven together with spider webbing. The inside is lined with animal fur, downy plant material or soft grass and moss. Then the outside of the nest is ornamented with grayish green bits of lichen or bark, making the nest practically invisible as it perches atop a similar-looking tree branch. Lately we have heard folks ask about “hummingbird houses,” which apparently are available in some stores. (Hummingbirds do not/will not nest in a nest box.)
The eggs of hummingbirds are just as amazing as the nest. While most birds lay eggs that average about three percent of their body weight, hummingbird eggs are a whopping 10 to 20 percent of the female hummingbird’s weight. This would be equivalent to a 140-pound woman giving birth to a 25-pound baby! Still, hummingbird eggs are incredibly small, averaging less than one-half inch long. The female incubates the eggs between 15 and 20 days, only leaving the nest for brief periods to feed. We were able to watch this entire process from our deck, setting up our spotting scope at 45x magnification. A short time later, two young hummers were visible, and the soft nest would flex and move as they stretched their tiny bodies into comfortable positions.
The mother hummingbird feeds her chicks a nutritious diet of both flower nectar and insects, and after about three weeks, the young birds will leave the nest. It is then that we see many more hummingbirds visiting our feeders.
Hummingbird feeding is a spectator sport. These birds are easily attracted to nectar feeders using a simple mixture of sugar and water in a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar. This almost exactly mimics the nectar that is produced by garden flowers. Please do not use red food coloring as it is harmful to the birds, and you should always use real sugar, not honey or a sugar substitute. In the heat of summer, you should clean your feeder and replace the nectar at least every three to four days. And don’t worry about keeping your feeder up too long into the fall season. Our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will follow their migratory instinct even if your feeder is still available. They will be gone from our area by around October 10 (overwintering in Central America) and return to us around April 10.
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.