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by Stan Tekiela
September 11, 2017
I'm often asked what is my favorite bird. This is much like asking a parent to choose which is their favorite child. I often answer this question by stating that whatever bird or animal I am studying or photographing at the time is my favorite. The truth is, they are all my favorite. I've yet to meet a bird or animal that I didn't find fascinating and super cool.
However if push comes to shove, and I had to choose a favorite bird, I would single out a group of birds, not a single bird, the hummingbirds. They are an amazing group of birds that are unlike all other birds. There are more than 320 species of hummingbird. This is the second largest family of birds in the world. It is huge. What is even more interesting is, hummingbirds are only found in the New World (the America's). They don't have hummingbirds in Europe, Africa, Asia or any other place in the world except for the America's.
Hummingbirds are one of the most easily recognized birds. They have sparkly feathers that refract sunlight like a prism. They feed upon nectar from flowers. They are fast and agile flyers. They are the only bird that can truly hover. They can fly backwards, straight up and down and if that is not enough, they do aerial somersaults.
There are 15 species of hummingbird that occur in the western half of the U.S. and Canada. Here in the eastern half of the country we only get one species, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. It's name comes from a ruby red throat patch on the male.
So I was thrilled beyond belief when recently I was contacted about a Ruby-throated hummingbird nesting. I immediately dropped everything and went to check it out. Sure enough right next to a home, owned by the most wonderful couple who enjoy birds and nature, was a tiny hummingbird female tending her two tiny pea sized eggs.
With all hummingbird species, the female sets up her own territory separate from male. She builds her own nest and incubates the eggs all by herself. The male takes no part in caring or raising the young hummers.
The female builds a nest, constructed mostly of soft plant material such as cottonwood seed puffs and glues it all together with spider silk. She forms the cup shape with her own body. So in the end, the nest is form fit to accommodate just one bird. The problem is, the female always lays 2 eggs. Which means by the time the babies hatch and grow up the nest will need to accommodate 2 adult sized birds. This is accomplished by the fact that the nest is constructed with spider silk which allows the nest to expand as the chicks grow.
Over a month’s period of time, I visited this hummingbird nest, careful to not disturb the female in any way. Using a long lens, I could sit at a respectful distance which allowed me to capture the natural behaviors of the day to day life of the hummingbird family.
At first she spent all her time incubating. Periods of incubation lasted only 20 minutes or so before the female would zoom off to feed herself. She would be gone 5 or 10 minutes before returning to the nest to settle down to incubate again.
When the babies hatched, the impossibly tiny chicks could barely lift their heads. Their eyes are not open yet and they don't have any feathers. Yet the mother feeds them with her long bill. This is what I call the sward swallowing act.
As the babies grew the mother stopped sitting (brooding) on the babies and it wasn't long before the young were so large they could barely fit in the nest. The mother would come to visit the nest about once or twice per hour. Each time she returned, the chicks would open their beaks and wait for the sward swallowing act to begin. The mother would slide her long beak down the babies’ throat and regurgitate a mixture of nectar and partially digested insects. Right on schedule the babies grew up and practiced flapping their wings at the edge of the nest and the next day they were gone.
What an amazing experience and learning opportunity. Until next time...
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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