MARTHA SEZ: ‘It is hard to imagine how nature managed to get all of that orneriness into such a little package’
Darla’s hummingbirds have flown: It is now fall. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird we see here in the Northeast. Ruby-throats arrive in spring and depart in autumn. Darla has been feeding homemade nectar to the “hummies,” as she calls them, every summer for years.
“I use 12 pounds of sugar a summer,” she says.
“There is always something sad about the hummingbirds’ flying south,” Darla told me. “It means the end of summer.”
It must be melancholy to be left behind with the shivering, shedding trees, standing by the abandoned sugarwater feeders, calling out “Good-bye little hummingbirds, wherever you are! Have a safe flight.”
Meanwhile, the birds, I imagine, are all jazzed up about their upcoming trip. Mexico! Woo hoo!
Fall has come early this year, after a hot and beautiful summer, a perfect tourist season.
“It feels like the door just slammed shut on summer,” one visitor remarked. Fall foliage colors are already well underway.
Officially — if such a thing can be deemed official — North Country hummingbirds fly south by Oct. 15, coincidentally my daughter Molly’s birthday. Leaf color reliably peaks the week before. Not this year, though. The Office of Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Migration and Leaf Color moved the date to mid-September.
Darla keeps her feeders scrupulously clean. For several years, she was hostess to a family of ruby-throated hummingbirds with orange throat feathers. Only the males have brilliant feathers, usually iridescent red, not orange.
She knew and could identify each bird in the flock, and even had names for them. Once after she’d moved a short distance away she worried that she would lose her orange-throat family, but they found her the following spring. When she moved again, from Lewis to Willsboro, she thought she had seen the last of them. Then she wasn’t sure.
“Larry (her partner) thinks I’m crazy,” she said, “But there is an orange-throated male in the flock that came to my feeders this summer, with females. I’m wondering if they could be part of my old family?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They fly all the way to Mexico and Costa Rica in the fall and back in the spring. Who’s to say they can’t make it from Lewis to Willsboro? Plus, they have a bird’s-eye view of the yards and houses on the ground.” I could tell that the uncertainty was unnerving her.
One online source maintains that some people believe that hummingbirds migrate riding the backs of geese — since otherwise, being so tiny and weak, they would never be able to make it all the way to Mexico — but this is clearly untrue, since geese hardly ever even go to Mexico.
One thing you may have noticed about hummingbirds: They look simply adorable, in their jewel-tone feathers, zipping around and sipping out of flowers, but in reality they are ornery little cusses. It is hard to imagine how nature managed to get all of that orneriness into such a little package.
Typically, one male sits in a tree near a feeder, which he polices vigilantly. If any other hummingbird approaches the feeder, he runs it off. This seems odd, because there is so much liquid food in the feeder, way more than one mean little customer no bigger than a teabag could possibly consume in a day, and anyway Darla is constantly replenishing the supply.
She worries that the nectar she provides will keep the birds from their natural food, the nectar from ornithophilous flowers.
I’ll bet you think I only mentioned this in order to work in the word “ornithophilous,” which, I just learned, means “bird loving.” Perhaps.
The nectar of ornithophilous flowers contains more sucrose than the nectar of insect-pollinated flowers, which contains more glucose and fructose. Insect-pollinated flowers tend to be more strongly scented than those pollinated by birds. Hummingbirds are primarily, but not solely, drawn to red and purple flowers.
Hummingbirds devour huge amounts of nectar for their size. They do get a lot of exercise, though. Have you ever seen an obese hummingbird? An obese hummingbird might suddenly fall out of the sky, like a ripe plum, only to be pounced upon by a waiting cat. These cats around here have nothing but time.
Darla’s mystery was solved when she called Sue, her old neighbor, to inquire after the orange-throats. Yes, they had spent the whole summer in the old neighborhood, Sue said.
Still, the one one orange-throat at Darla’s Willsboro feeder might have been a cousin. Have a good week.