Sunday, June 22, 2008

Talking to Hummingbirds

So, a week ago Thursday I heard a hummingbird's voice for the first time -- a faint little sound rather like that represented in English orthography by "tsk". At first I thought I was hearing one of the juncos, who have been very vocal this spring (we think a pair of them are nesting in a nearby tree, since they throw fits whenever our cats get close to it), but then I saw the hummingbird at the feeder (less than ten feet away from the window I was looking out of), and when I made my nearest approximation of the noise back at it, it broke off feeding and hovered there. We tsk'd back and forth at each other three or so times, then it took off at top speed.
Just to make sure I wasn't imagining it, I made the same noise at a hummingbird when I was out on the balcony today, and it immediately made the same noise back at me again.
So there it is: hummingbirds aren't totally silent, as I'd assumed, though they aren't exactly songbirds either. Live and learn.

And while I'm mentioning hummingbirds, I shd say that hanging a second feeder on the opposite end of the balcony seems to have headed off Hummingbird Wars this year, at least so far. I've seen as many as three at a time (one at the feeder -- the little grey female -- and the other two chasing and being chased). One visited so often, and took on so much serum each time, that I was convinced she was taking it back to her nestlings and that sooner or later we'd see her return with a string of miniature hummingbirds hovering at the feeder in a queue, like little ducklings. But it seems, upon consulting the books, that this is not the case; once the babies start to fly they're pretty much the same size as their parents, though it warns that their landings are far from graceful (apparently learning to land is the hardest part). And this last week we did see a hummingbird whose hover was a little wobbly, so I think the babies are out and about now.

In any case, the hummingbirds have definitely sized me up as no threat; today the male (the ruby-headed one) came to the feeder just after I'd rehung it, so I was standing right by the rail, where I could easily have reached out and touched him (though he'd have been long gone before my hand reached the spot, of course). He decided he didn't mind me being there at all, but he did object to my talking. It was nice to be close enough to see his tongue (hummingbirds don't suck up nectar like a syringe but lap it up with their long, flexible tongues); Janice and I a little later while sitting outside enjoying a cup of tea saw one lick the tip of its beak, exactly like a cat licking its lips, before it flew away.

And,in case anyone out there's thinking of setting up a feeder, here's the new formula that's proving to be so popular with our hummingbirds: mix one part sugar with four parts water, heat to boiling, stir to dissolve (I think the boiling must keep the sugar from precipitating out once the mixture cools). Once it's cool enough, I bottle it and store in the refrigerator until needed. A lot cheaper than the store-bought instant mix powder I'd been using, without the red food dye the other had in it, and the hummingbirds seem to like it a lot more.


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