By Jeannie Marcure
The arrival of spring is a special time for all of us who enjoy birdwatching. I especially enjoy the end of April and the first part of May as these weeks typically mark the return of our hummingbirds with their jewel-like colors and frantic display flights.
For most of the years that I’ve lived here, our feeders have welcomed only Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds. However, that all changed in 2012 with the arrival of a pair of Black-chinned Hummingbirds who quickly settled in and became residents of our area. Since that first summer, I’ve had many opportunities to enjoy, study and photograph these unique little birds.
Before they settled into our yard, I was under the impression that the Black-chinned were found mainly in riparian habitats because that was the only place that I’d seen them. After a little research, I discovered that although they like areas with water, they adapt to many different habitat types and are found throughout the west from British Columbia to Mexico. Their only requirements seem to be a rather open canopy containing a few tall trees, a deciduous component, and some flowering plants. Of course, feeders are welcomed as well! Most Black-chinned Hummingbirds winter in Mexico.
As is the case with most hummingbirds, the male Black-chinned is quite easy to identify. Of the three species that come to our feeders, he is the middle sized one at 3.5 inches. As the name suggests, he has a black chin, which is bordered by a narrow violet strip that often appears black unless the light is just right. He has a green back, sides and crown and a white spot behind the eye. I think he looks a little like he’s wearing an executioner’s hood! The female is best identified by the white spot behind her eye, her upright sitting posture, the rather slender head and neck, and wingtips that are just slightly shorter than the tail. Another reliable identifier for both male and female is the very slight down curve of the bill and the almost constant tail pumping while they hover to feed.
During courtship, the male displays by flying back and forth in a wide u-shaped arc in front of a perched female. These flights often include 60 to 100 drops and are accompanied by a whirring sound on each dive. After copulation, the male basically disappears leaving all nest building, incubation and feeding of the chicks to the female.
The nest is typically built in a tree or shrub four to eight feet from the ground; it is a small lightly woven cup made of grasses and plant fibers. A camouflage of lichens and dead leaves covers the outside, and its unique construction allows the nest to expand as the chicks arrive and grow. Each female lays two white eggs approximately the size of a coffee bean and are incubated for 13 to 16 days. When hatched, the babies are about ½ inch long, have their eyes closed, and are almost completely naked except for two rows of downy feathers down their backs. Amazingly they fledge within 20 days! Juveniles are typically larger than the adults. Female juveniles look much like the adult female, while the males start to develop a dark throat patch by fall.
If you have not yet discovered the fun of watching hummingbirds in your own yard, perhaps this will be the year to start. All you need is a feeder for the sugar water, some sugar and water. Remember no red coloring is needed—just add ¼ cup of white sugar to each cup of boiling water, let it cool and place it in your feeder. It is important to keep your feeder clean and to change the solution if it becomes cloudy. During hot weather this will need to be done every day or so as the solution can ferment and become toxic during this time.
You can also make your yard more attractive to hummingbirds by planting flowering trees and shrubs and by providing a water source of some kind. Some of my favorite flowering plants are Bees Balm (Monarda), Coral Bells, Mountain Hollyhocks and our native Serviceberry bushes. If you don’t want to bother with flowerbeds, a small hanging basket of colorful flowers on your deck will also attract hummingbirds. For water, we have a small recirculating fountain that all of our birds enjoy. Hummingbirds are also attracted to sprinklers and enjoy darting back and forth through the spray.
I hope that this summer brings many hummingbirds to your feeders and lots of time to enjoy them. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to try for that perfect hummingbird photo that you can share in the Pileated Post next fall!