Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Doing the Hummingbird Shuffle

     Arizona is considered to be the "hummingbird capital" of the United States. That is certainly so in the southeastern part of the state where up to 15 species can be found, more than anywhere else in North America. Up here in the mountains, however, we have four "regular" species, and occasionally one or two more. At our house, we get all four: broad-tailed, which are the first to show up in spring and are breeders here; black-chinned and calliope, two species that show up off and on throughout the summer; and then...we have the rufous hummingbird (cue the "Psycho" shower scene music).
    Prior to the 4th of July holiday, feeding hummingbirds is a gentle pastime; our sweet little broad-taileds, black-chinned, and calliope (the smallest of our North American hummingbirds) don't suck up too much nectar. A couple feeders on the back deck, maybe one on the front porch, need to be filled up about once a week. No problem. They follow the rules of kindergarten: share and share alike and treat others as you would want to be treated.
A sentry keeping watch over his feeder
   Then, on July 4th, the fireworks begin. I'm not talking about the chemically-engineered, rocket-launching light show. I'm talking rufous hummingbirds. Done breeding in the Pacific Northwest, western Canada, and Alaska, these fire-colored beasties are actually on their migration trip to southern Mexico for winter. They are, literally, our first sign of fall, a somber thought on the July 4th weekend. They also arrive en masse, and begin to completely disrupt our lives. Keeping our hummingbirds fed becomes a job for both morning and evening, every day. Not only that, rufous's are known for their territorial behavior. They "adopt" a feeder as their own, and dive-bomb every other hummingbird that dares to take a sip.

     But it's not only which feeders are protected on a daily basis (and that changes every day, depending on the birds present and which feeders look unusually enticing for which overseer bird), it's the sheer numbers of hummingbirds that park themselves in our yard over the course of about two and a half months that literally rule our lives.

     We get dozens. And dozens. Sometimes it feels like hundreds. We've had years where we can see dozens of hummingbirds using each feeder. And we put out something like 7 feeders. Each little hole on the feeder, or port, has a bird sipping from it, plus there are birds buzzing around each feeder waiting their turn. Sometimes there are two birds for each port. It's nuts.
     So this is my day. I wake up super early because we have to put the feeders out before first light. You can hear the birds start to wake up around 5 a.m. The "Angry Birds" app has nothing on these birds when they wake up and there is no nectar. We keep the feeders indoors overnight because we occasionally get bears in the yard, and they're attracted to not only our seed feeders, but to these nectar feeders as well. So every night, we take the feeders down and bring them indoors. In the morning, I schlep feeders out, all seven or possibly even eight or nine, which I fill every morning with nectar. Let's say 7 feeders at four cups of nectar per feeder; that equals 1.75 gallons. I then tromp back inside (and this is before my morning coffee), and make a couple more gallons of nectar. Please note that two gallons of nectar requires EIGHT CUPS of sugar. Every day, or at least just about every day. I then go to work.

   I come home from work, greeted happily by my dog, but I can't even take the time to pet her, because many of the hummingbird feeders are empty, and the Angry Birds are making alot of noise. I toss my purse and work stuff on the counter and rush outside to figure out which feeders on that day are "guarded" by one little rufous hummer and still have nectar in them, and move those to where the empty feeders are, switching them out. I then put a little bit of nectar in the empty feeders, just enough to get them through the evening rush. After darkness, ah the blessed darkness, falls and the birds quiet down, I schlep the feeders back into the house and the cycle begins anew the next morning at 5:00. I call it "doing the hummingbird shuffle," as I feel like it's like a little dance, but it 's really more than that. It's like being forced at gunpoint to dance; you're sort of panic-stricken because you have dozens of feisty hummingbirds buzzing around complaining about the empty feeders, some need to be moved to certain spots, others need to be filled; and each day, the dance is slightly different.

Bees!!! What a pain!!!!
    So why do we do it? Well, despite the panic-stricken daily feeding shuffle, the time it takes to make two gallons of nectar each day, the space in the fridge taken up by gallon jugs of nectar, the empty replacement feeders either drying in the dish rack or strewn around our kitchen island making a mess, the sugar we have to buy in 25-lb bags at Costco, and the damn bees that sometimes take over a feeder (and are a totally different story), it is a marvel. Lazing over breakfast on the back deck while dozens upon dozens of hummingbirds go about their daily business, fighting, exploring your flowers, perching on the funniest places to lord over their protected feeder (tops of chairs; the top corner of a chain-link fence), doing their mating ritual dive-bombs, and more make our world just that much richer and fascinating. You gotta love hummingbirds. They are the toughest little creatures with the heart, and fierceness, of a lion. If they were our size, none of us would probably ever leave our houses out of abject fear.

    By mid-September, they start getting a move on, and slowly the numbers decrease. Feeding is less of a frenzy, and gets back to a reasonable pace. It's almost a relief, but not quite. I miss them, and I know that winter is on its way, and I simply can not wait for next year's insanity.

     I was able to finally get some videos uploaded. Here you go:

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