Bristol residents Don and Donna Morrell saw their first hummingbird of spring at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, April 15. “My wife put the feeder up last week,” wrote Don in an email to me. “We live behind South Houston Dam.”
Gordon Aiton, who lives on Elm Street in Erwin, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird of spring at 7:04 p.m. on Friday, April 19.
Phyllis Moore saw her first hummingbird — a male — at 7:50 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at her home in Bristol, Virginia.
Lynda Carter emailed me to report her first spring sighting of a male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder after lunch on Monday, April 15, and a second male appeared on Friday, April 19, a little after 1 p.m. Lynda said she lives at the end of Embreeville mountain in the Lamar community near Jonesborough, Tennessee.
Susan Okrasinski, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of spring on Easter Sunday, April 21.
“On my way into the kitchen I just saw (be still my heart) the first hummer of the season — whoo hoo!” Susan wrote in a post on her Facebook page. “It was a female, which is unusual as the males come up first and the females follow. What a nice Easter surprise!”
Joanne Campbell, who lives at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page about her first spring hummer. “Had our first hummingbird sweep into our courtyard on Tuesday, April 23,” she wrote in her post.
Every hummingbird’s arrival at our homes after an absence of nearly six months is nothing short of an epic achievement on the part of this tiny bird. According to the website, hummingbird.net, most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a daring journey across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer homes in the United States and Canada. They typically depart at dusk for their nonstop Gulf flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather.
Now that we’ve welcomed them back into our yards and gardens after such a harrowing journey, it’s important as good hosts to make sure these tiny wonders are kept safe.
Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a minute amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.
Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.
For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.
There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and mineral valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.
The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?
I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.
Honey is another substance, although perfectly natural in its origins, that should be avoided. Honey encourages the growth of fungus, which can quickly incapacitate or kill a hummingbird. A packet of artificial sweetener might taste great in your iced tea, but do not add such substances to the solution in your hummingbird feeder. These artificial sugar substitutes offer nothing of nutritional value for a bird with an extreme metabolism with excessive energy demands. In theory, a hummingbird mistakenly feeding on nothing but an artificial sweetener would soon starve to death.
It’s also important to change out your feeders and clean them as often as every one to three days. In extremely hot weather reaching more than 90 degrees, the sugar solution may need to be changed and the feeder cleaned on a daily basis. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. I prepare sugar water and store it in plastic juice containers. Refrigerated, the solution will last longer and can be doled out on a daily basis until a new supply is needed.
Don’t use any type of soap or detergent to clean the feeders. The best advice I’ve read is to stick to hot water and vinegar, which will not leave behind a residue that could potentially harm the hummingbirds.
Do not put any sort of red dye or coloring into the sugar water, and do not purchase commercial solutions that incorporate red dyes. Some scientific studies suggest that red dye is a recipe for disaster with hummingbird. Such dyes are thought to lead to kidney failure and certain death for the hummingbird. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that banning red dye is an exaggeration of the peril. Taking that into consideration, I still err on the side of caution. Perhaps the red dye will eventually be proven harmless. Until that time, I prefer not to risk the health of my resident hummingbirds.
I’m often asked if the sugar water feeder itself should be red. There is ample evidence that hummingbirds are attracted to red. According to information from the National Audubon Society website, current thinking is that the red dye, as just mentioned, may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on a feeder is enough to attract them. Most feeders incorporate some red parts into their construction. People can mix their own nectar using 1/4 cup sugar to every 1 cup of water.
It’s a lot of work to attract hummingbirds and keep them safe and healthy. I’d like to think the rewards we get from these small birds make the effort worthwhile.
Bob Cheers, a resident of Plantation Road in Bristol, Virginia, sent an email to announce the arrival of his first hummingbird of spring at 6:20 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10.
“I put the feeder out April 2, which is earlier than previous years, after reading your March 31 article in the Bristol Herald Courier,” Bob wrote. “It brought to mind the one year that I failed to get the feeder out early and spotted a hummingbird hovering outside of my family room window, in the exact location my feeder has hung for the last 30 plus years. That little guy had to have been a repeat customer.”
Bob wrote that he’s intrigued by the fact that this year’s arrival date falls within the spread that ranges from April 9 to April 14 that he has established since he started recording the returns in 2009. “What triggers their departure from Central America and their guidance system, considering the variable winds encountered, that sends them back to my feeder within a five-day period each year?” Bob asked in his email.
I had to do some digging to find an answer to Bob’s question. According to the website, Hummingbird.net, the phenomenon of migration among hummingbirds is not well understood.
“Most ruby-throated hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama,” the website reveals. “Since hummingbirds lead solitary lives and neither live nor migrate in flocks, an individual bird may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is favorable, but probably returns to the same location each winter.”
The time they spend on this wintering range is remarkably brief. “Ruby-throats begin moving north as early as January, and by the end of February, they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat in preparation for flying to the United States,” the website notes.
According to the website, some hummingbirds skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, while most apparently cross the Gulf, typically leaving at dusk for a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours depending on the weather.
The force that compels hundreds of thousands of individual hummingbirds to all migrate at the same time remains mysterious. The reason these birds migrate is simpler. In the eastern half of the United States and Canada, ruby-throated hummingbirds face no competition from their own kind. If they remained in Central America, they would have to compete with dozens of species of hummingbirds during the nesting season. From the standpoint of the ruby-throated hummingbird, why not take a trip and claim a monopoly over some resource-rich terrain? It’s worked for these tiny flying jewels so far.
So, Bob became the first person to report a hummingbird arrival to me this year, but plenty of other people lined up to share their sightings, too.
Amy Wallin Tipton in Erwin, Tennessee, sent a message via Facebook to report her first hummingbird arrival for the spring. “Just saw my first hummer,” she wrote. Amy reported that the hummer, a male, arrived at 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10. “I’m so glad they are back,” she shared.
Ginger Brackins also reported that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on Wednesday, April 10, at her home in Erwin, Tennessee. She noted that it was a week earlier than last year. Ginger notes the arrival dates each year on her calendar. Ginger’s message about her sighting arrived thanks to her daughter, Gina McKinney, who emailed me on her mother’s behalf
Joneen Sargent reported that her first hummingbird put in an appearance at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 11, at her home in Bristol, Tennessee. In her email, she also asked if I had heard of downy woodpeckers drinking from sugar water feeders.
I answered her question by informing her that I’ve noticed downy woodpeckers, as well as Carolina chickadees, taking sips from my feeders. The chickadees can get quite acrobatic in their efforts to indulge their taste for sweets.
“We had our first male hummer at the feeder on Thursday, April 11, here in Bristol, Tennessee,” reported Tom and Sue Faucette in an email. “He came back on April 12-13.”
Lynne Reinhard reported that she saw her first hummingbirds of spring on Friday, April 12. “They are back!” Lynne proclaimed in a Facebook message. She wrote that the first hummingbird of the season arrived at 3 p.m. at her home on the upper end of South Holston Lake.
Snad Garrett saw her first hummingbird of spring on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on the evening of Friday, April 12.
Merry Jennings in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Friday, April 12, around 6 p.m., but hasn’t seen it since. “I put out the feeder on Thursday, April 11,” she noted in the email she sent me.
Lisa Brewer, who lives near Boone Lake in Piney Flats, Tennessee, reported that her first hummer arrived around 3 p.m. on Friday, April 12.
“I put my hummingbird feeders out last Sunday and had been watching every day for the first hummer to arrive,” she wrote in her email. “I was really excited to see a male ruby-throated hummingbird, and I saw what appeared to be the same one on Saturday and Sunday.”
Lisa added that this is the first year she has been able to get her feeders out in time for the first hummingbirds arriving in this area. “So I wanted to be sure to let you know when I saw my first one,” Lisa wrote.
Glen Eller saw his first hummingbird for the spring season on Friday, April 12, at 5:55 p.m. at his home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. “it was a male,” Glen reported in an email.
Karen Fouts posted on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of 2019 on Friday, April 12, at her home in Marion, Virginia. She also reported rose-breasted grosbeaks at her feeders.
Lois Cox and Wilma Boy reported their first male ruby-throat hummingbird on Saturday, April 13, at 2:30 p.m. at home in Bluff City, Tennessee. In her email, Lois noted that they needed to get out their feeders for the visiting bird. “It was a male,” Lois wrote in the email. “Hope it comes back.”
Deb Clark sent me an email on behalf of her mother and her sighting of a spring hummingbird. “My mother, Louise Tilson, has asked that I send you a message sharing her good news that she’s having hummingbirds at her backdoor feeder,” Deb wrote in the email.
Deb added that her mom lives in the Riverside community near Chilhowie, Virginia, on the banks of the South Fork of the Holston River. “She put out her feeder about a week ago,” Deb wrote. “The first little fellow showed up Friday, April 12, at about three-thirty in the afternoon.”
Deb relayed that her mother said the hummer came and perched on the feeder, drinking like he was starving.
Louise reported multiple visits by solitary male hummingbirds several times through Friday afternoon, but she wasn’t sure whether it was one bird making several trips or different birds.
Lane and Phyllis Duncan, who reside in the Rich Valley community in Smyth, Virginia, sent me an email to report their first hummer of spring on Friday, April 12, at 3:30 p.m.
Karen Shaffer sent me an email to announce the arrival of a hummingbird at her home. “I’m so excited to report we saw our first hummer on Saturday, April 13, at 11 a.m. at our home on Rich Valley Road, Bristol, near the Benhams and Nordyke communities.”
Karen said she heard the bird before she saw it. “It was visiting our blooming yellow holly bush,” she wrote. “Such a tiny thing — but vivid in color at the throat, so a male, I guess. Yay!”
Gloria Walter Blevins reported in a Facebook message that she saw her first hummingbird this spring on Friday, April 12, at her home in Damascus Virginia. The hummingbird — or another one — returned the following morning. Gloria also noted that she has bluebirds building a nest at her home.
Priscilla Gutierrez, Limestone Cove community in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she saw the first spring hummingbird Friday, April 12, at 6:45 p.m. “They have been coming ever since,” she noted.
April Kerns Fain in Erwin, Tennessee, posted about her hummingbird sightings on Saturday, April 13, on Facebook. “The hummingbirds are back,” she wrote. “I’ve seen a male at my feeders several times today.”
Jane P. Arnold sent me an email to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a male — on Saturday, April 13. The following day, a female ruby-throated hummingbird also showed up at the feeder.
Jane added that she’s still waiting to see her own first hummingbird for the spring.
Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, reported her first spring hummingbird arrived on Saturday, April 13. “I just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” she wrote in her email. “Just one male so far. I have had my feeders out and waiting for a couple days. I thought this warm spring weather might bring in a few. So exciting!”
Sharee Bowman wrote a post on her Facebook page to announce her first spring hummer sighting on Saturday, April 13. “Hummingbird came yesterday to my feeder and, yes, it is the first one I have seen this year,” she wrote.
Felicia Mitchell saw her first spring hummingbird on Saturday, April 13. “He is happy to be home,” she reported in a comment on my Facebook page.
Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page about hummingbird arrivals. “They arrived at our house in Bristol, Tennessee, near Holston Dam on Highway 421, on Saturday, April 13, about 10:30 a.m.,” she wrote in her posting.
Vivian C. Tester sent me a Facebook message to report that she saw her first spring hummer at her home in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14.
Linda Kessinger Rhodes saw her first spring hummingbird visiting her feeders at her home in Tennessee Hills by the Walmart on the Parkway in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14. She posted her sighting on my Facebook page.
Rhonda Eller saw her first hummingbird on Sunday, April 14, at 1:20 p.m. In her post on my Facebook page, she noted that she hung the feeder out last Wednesday before heading to Louisville to visit family. “I am always pleasantly surprised for the first spotting of one here on Horseshoe Bend in Chilhowie, Virginia,” she added. “Oh, the bluebirds are here, too, and have a nest with three eggs.”
Cheri Miller posted on my Facebook page about her sighting. “I saw one Sunday, April 14, in the Brown’s Branch community in Hampton, Tennessee, eyeing an orchid blooming in the window,” she wrote in her post.
Ron Bartlett reported by email that a single male showed up at his feeder on Sunday, April 14. “I live in McDowell County, North Carolina,” Ron shared. “This is about a week later than normal. Perhaps he was held up trying to cross the border.”
Donna Barnes Kilday of Erwin, Tennessee, posted to my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on the morning of Monday, April 15.
Janie Compton, a resident of Chesterfield, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Monday, April 15. Her friend, Phyllis Moore, posted news of Janie’s sighting on my Facebook page.
Emily Rogers, from Jonesborough, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she had her first hummingbird of spring in Tennessee’s oldest town on Monday, April 15.
Linda K. Sproles of Bristol, Tennessee, got her first visit from a female hummingbird on Monday, April 15, in the late afternoon. Last year, she said her first sighting took place on Apr.14 while in 2017 she first saw a returning hummingbird on April 16.
Philip Laws, a resident of Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird on Tuesday, April 16, at 4:20 p.m.
Tom and Cathy McNeil, who reside in the Piney Grove community of Hampton, Tennessee, reported their first spring hummingbird on Facebook on Tuesday, April 16.
I saw my first hummingbird this spring when a male visited several of my feeders around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16. I enjoyed welcoming him home.
Readers are welcome to continue sharing their hummingbird sightings. Plenty of other colorful birds are also making spring migration stops, and I love to hear what everyone is seeing in their own yards. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments or observations.
I’m always happy for the arrival of April because I know the month hails the arrival of some of my favorite birds. The roughly 50 species of New World warblers that occur in the Eastern United States have captivated me from the time I first picked up a pair of binoculars. The warblers offer color, energy, complex songs and much more for the bird enthusiast to enjoy.
The month started out with my first sighting of a purple finch for the year. The finch must have been a harbinger of birds to come because in quick succession I observed many early migrants, including brown thrasher, blue-headed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher and chipping sparrow, as well as several warblers.
The first warbler to arrive in the woods around my home this year was a singing male black-throated green warbler. Three others — black-and-white warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Louisiana waterthrush — followed quickly after my sighting of the black-throated green warbler.
The Louisiana waterthrush stood out among these early observations. This warbler is a specialist of creeks and streams, and my sighting took place near a roaring creek swollen by a rainy spring. This water-loving warbler also has a loud, ringing song that can still be hard to hear because of the fact the bird is usually near the background noise of rushing water.
While many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years, the Louisiana waterthrush appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website, “All About Birds,” Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight, a network of organizations engaged in all aspects of avian conservation, estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.
While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to the website, “All About Birds.”
The waterthrushes are the only two species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years curator of birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.
The only other warbler in the genus Parkesia is the Northern waterthrush which, unlike its relative, likes to live near quiet, sedate pools, ponds and bogs, not rushing streams.
Hummingbirds getting closer to region
Tommy and Virginia Curtis of Smithville, Tennessee, reported their first ruby-throated hummingbirds of the spring on the email group, “TN-Birds.” The hummingbird arrived on April 7.
“We had two male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive late Sunday afternoon,” they wrote in their email. “That is a little later than the April 1 arrival times in the past.”
The two visitors had apparently agreed to co-exist.
“So far they are eating peacefully, and neither is attacking or dominating the one feeder,” the couple reported. “We keep wondering when the white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos plan to leave, as we have had many of them all winter.”
The couple also shared that they have been hosting a small flock of purple finches. “They normally don’t show up at our feeders unless there is snow on the ground, but we have enjoyed seeing them daily,” they wrote in their email.
Of course, the Curtises live in DeKalb County in Middle Tennessee. As of press time, I still haven’t received any reports of hummingbirds arriving in East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m confident these tiny winged gems will arrive soon. I hope to update on hummingbird arrivals in next week’s column.
Remember to share your hummingbird sighting by emailing me the date and time of the sighting to email@example.com. I’m also on Facebook should anyone want to contact me through that social media platform.
Photo by Dianna Lynne • Leaping onto a fully stocked feeder, an Eastern gray squirrel scatters seeds in all directions. The unconquerable squirrel is one of the most unwanted guests at many bird-feeding stations.
The winter bird-feeding season is coming to a close, but there’s no need to pull the welcome mat completely. Some of our summer visitors appreciate some supplemental food. Of course, there’s less need for our offerings during warm weather when insects and other food sources are readily available.
People in Great Britain spend 200 million pounds per year on wild bird food. In the United States, people are spending $4 billion each year on feed for the birds. Another $800 million in spending goes to feeders, bird baths and other accessories used to attract wild birds.
People have been feeding birds in the United States of America since before it was a nation. The father of our country, George Washington, fed wild birds at his home, Mount Vernon. The great writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau fed the birds and learned to identify many of the birds around Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Poet Emily Dickinson tossed crumbs to sparrows and then turned those special moments with her feathered friends into poetry.
Since the time of Washington, Thoreau and Dickinson, if not before, Americans have been supplying food, as well as shelter and water, to persuade birds to bring themselves closer. In return, we enjoy their color, their interesting behavior, their songs, and much more.
I continue feeding during the warmer months, although I do cut back on the quantity of my offerings. One of the best bonuses for engaging in year-round bird feeding is the chance to see parent birds bring their offspring to feeders to introduce them to human-offered fare. Be aware, however, that when you put out a table offering free food, you’re bound to attract some unexpected guests. Sometimes those unanticipated visitors can wreak havoc on the smooth management of a feeding station for your birds.
Here is my version of the Top 5 candidates for a “Not Welcome” list of the wildlife most people would prefer not to entertain at their feeders.
The raptors are, of course, birds themselves. Therein rests the irony. Flocks of birds active around feeders are like ringing a dinner bell for some raptors, which have learned that songbirds in such situations on occasion make easy pickings.
It’s not any single raptor that can be identified as the most obvious threat to songbirds. Species such as American kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, merlin, peregrine falcon and red-tailed hawk will prey on their fellow birds if given ample opportunity.
If a hawk does begin to show interest in your feeders, it may be necessary to curtail or even cease feeding songbirds until after the raptor loses interest and moves on to other hunting grounds.
I hesitate to even place raptors on this list because I believe that every bird is a wonderful creation. It’s best to remember that hawks view smaller birds flocking to a feeder in the same way those small songbirds view the abundance of seeds. For both hawks and songbirds, our offerings represent easy meals. It’s not easy, but the best choice is to co-exist — if not at peace, then at terms with nature’s reality.
The Virginia opossum, also known as the North American opossum, or simply “possum,” is often overlooked because its raids on feeders take place after dark. Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.
Regardless of its toothy grin, the possum is not adept as hulling sunflower seeds. The telltale sign that a possum is raiding your feeders involves the discovery of little piles of pulped sunflower seeds, hull and all, in your feeder or on the ground beneath it. The possum pulverizes the sunflower seed and evidently tries to extract what nutritional content it can. Of course, suet, nuts and other feeder fare are on the possum’s menu.
This particular possum is the only marsupial found north of Mexico. The continent of Australia is more famous for its marsupials, which include kangaroos, wallabies and wombats.
These masked, ring-tailed bandits are the bane of many a person who enjoys feeding birds. While they primarily restrict their raids to the hours between sunset and dawn, some emboldened raccoons will occasionally become brazen enough to stake a claim to feeders in broad daylight. A couple of years ago, a trio of young raccoons arrived early in the evening with plenty of daylight remaining to feed in the feeders while I watched from a nearby lawn chair with my binoculars.
Raccoons will also spirit away feeders. I’ve found hummingbird feeders, suet feeders and small plastic feeders carried a good distance into the woods before the thieving raccoon dropped them. The stolen items are usually damaged but, on occasion, I’ve recovered some of my items that were more or less no worse for the wear.
On one occasion, a crafty raccoon managed to remove a sunflower seed feeder from its branch on a tree outside one of my windows, I later found the portly critter reclining lazily on his back wedged between the trunk and a branch high on a nearby tree, holding the feeder in one arm and reaching into it with the other like a person eating popcorn.
Raccoons are highly intelligent and inquisitive, which only makes them more difficult to discourage from raiding feeders. They can be amusing and entertaining in their own right, but it’s best not to encourage their visits. If they prove too persistent, cease feeding birds until the raccoons have moved to a new location.
A visit from a black bear is hard to miss. With their brute strength, bears are capable of mangling and destroying even the most sturdily constructed of bird feeders. While there are many other unwanted feeder guests, none can match the bear for its sheer capacity for destruction. Black bears can weigh between 200 to 600 pounds, so it’s not hard to imagine their potential for wreaking havoc.
Amanda Austwick lives in Flag Pond, Tennessee. She is a dedicated feeder of our feathered friends, which has led to repeated incidents with problem bears over the years. Amanda lives within the official boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest. Black bears have been thriving in the Cherokee National Forest, as well as throughout the southeastern United States.
When I first corresponded with Amanda several years ago, she was writing to me about a bear attack on her feeders. “One feeder was completely bent over on the ground,” she wrote. I also pointed out that the bear is actually just feeding on the seed. The damage to the feeder is a by-product caused by the fact bears probably don’t know their own strength.
I’ve not gone completely unscathed when it comes to bears and my feeders. Several years ago I owned a nice feeder with a metal meshwork used for holding shelled peanuts, which are loved by birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers. I woke one morning to find the feeder had been mangled into the equivalent shape of a pretzel.
Compared to the stories told by Amanda, as well as other people who have shared their own bear tales over the years, I got off lucky to only lose a single feeder to a bear. Brookie and Jean Potter, friends who live near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, have had to innovate to stay one step ahead of the bears living in proximity to them. Brookie managed to raise their feeders beyond a bear’s reach using a complicated system of poles and pulleys.
If such proactive measures are not something one wishes to do, there’s one simple step that can be taken. People can bring in their feeders at night to ensure there’s nothing left outdoors to attract the attention of a meandering bear. Bears are omnivores, eating a varied diet ranging from insects and fish to amphibians and bird eggs. When a bear finds a bird feeder, they’re happy to include sunflower seeds or other such fare in their diet. When such food is no longer available, they’re likely to move on.
They may not match a black bear for sheer destructive capability, but I regard the Eastern gray squirrel as Public Enemy Number One when it comes to having peace and tranquility at a bird-feeding station. What justifies this ranking? It’s simple, really. I know of no sure-fire way to deny a hungry and determined squirrel access to any type of feeder. It’s possible to slow them down, but I think the best we can do is maintain an uneasy truce of co-existence with squirrels.
I wouldn’t begrudge the squirrels some bird seed if they didn’t show such ingratitude by gnawing on feeders. With their sharp incisors, squirrels can chew up and spit out plastic and even wood feeders. More expensive feeders made of ceramics, metal and glass are immune to the same type of squirrel vandalism.
Although I’ve not tried it, I’ve heard that sunflower seed laced with capsaicin will deter squirrels. This spicy substance is even used to deter such large mammals as elephants and grizzly bears. Capsaicin, which is derived from hot peppers, reacts entirely differently with birds. While many mammals will avoid food containing even minute amounts of capsaicin, birds will readily consume it. The difference seems to be that bird receptor cells are largely insensitive to capsaicin.
To be sure, I could have added some other wildlife species to the list. White-tailed deer can graze on flowers planted for the benefit of hummingbirds. Deer have even been documented eating the eggs of songbirds, perhaps more for the calcium shell than any other reason. Chipmunks are almost as wily as squirrels, but they’re cuter and non-destructive. Insects, such as bees and hornets, can overwhelm sugar water feeders intended for hummingbirds.
Don’t even get me started on stray cats! A few years back, a study by researchers from the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center found that between 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds lose their lives to cats each year in the United States. In addition to birds, cats kill billions of small mammals — shrews, voles, mice, rabbits — every year. Most of the carnage is committed by feral or stray cats, not house cats. My own two cats are kept indoors to avoid contributing to the problem.
As it has done for many years now, the website journeynorth.org is tracking the progress of ruby-throated hummingbirds as they return to the United States.
Most of the first sightings of hummingbirds made each spring are of male hummingbirds. The males arrive first so they can find and defend a choice territory for the purpose of attracting females. Indeed, there are many more sightings this week for male ruby-throated hummingbirds from Journey North citizen scientists who live along the Gulf Coast states.
On Facebook, I have been doing my own tracking based on posts from friends living farther south. For instance, Marcie McGehee Daniels in Summerville, South Carolina, made a Facebook post on March 22 to share news of her first-of-season ruby-throated hummingbird.
“He drank for a few seconds and then rested in the shade for about 10 minutes, worn out from his trip!” Marcie posted on her Facebook page. She also posted a fantastic photo of the intrepid migrant.
As demonstrated by Marcie’s post, the migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds is drawing closer to our region. They cross the Gulf of Mexico without stopping to reach the Gulf States. Once they make that difficult flight, they will spend some time recuperating before they spread out to make their way northward. Residents in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina should soon be making their first sightings of ruby-throated hummingbirds since these tiny flying gems departed last October.
On a recent visit to Fripp Island, South Carolina, I didn’t see any ruby-throated hummingbirds, but I did observe other birds that reminded me that many of my favorite birds should be returning to my home within the next few weeks. I enjoyed sightings of several species of warblers, as well as various shorebirds. Many warblers return to the region in April, and shorebirds may make migration stops at area lakes and rivers as they push rapidly toward breeding grounds in regions far to the north in Canada and Alaska.
Some of the first of the resident summer birds to return to the region each year includes species such as Louisiana waterthrush, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow, tree swallow and blue-gray gnatcatcher. Not too long after these “early birds” have returned, people can expect to start seeing the vanguard of the ruby-throated hummingbird spring migration as these tiny birds, which weigh no more than a nickel, return to their summer nesting grounds across the eastern United States and Canada.
As one might imagine, such tiny birds face a range of threats. In addition to offering sugar water feeders and planting gardens with nectar-bearing plants, there are other ways to help ruby-throated hummingbirds thrive.
The American Bird Conservancy recommends paying attention to our buying habits. In the winter months when they are far from their summer homes, ruby-throated hummingbirds are known to winter on shade coffee farms. Unlike today’s typical “sun” coffee farm, which razes all trees but the coffee itself, these traditional farms grow coffee in the shade of native trees. By doing so, they produce superior coffee and provide habitat for dozens of migratory songbirds, according to the ABC.
The importance of shade coffee for migratory birds was confirmed by naturalists Kenn and Kim Kaufman, who estimated that a single shade coffee farm in Nicaragua sheltered more than 1,200 migratory bird species—including the ruby-throated hummingbird—on just 90 acres. The ABC notes that buying bird-friendly coffee is an easy way people can help hummingbirds and many other migratory birds.
While the eastern United States is home only to the ruby-throated hummingbird as a nesting hummingbird species, the western half of the United States and Canada can claim about a dozen nesting species, including rufous hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, calliope hummingbird, buff-bellied hummingbird, broad-billed hummingbird and violet-crowned hummingbird.
To track the progress of ruby-throated hummingbird migration for yourself, visit http://www.journeynorth.org to monitor their approach to our region. Ruby-throats typically arrive in our region in early April. The early date for a ruby-throated hummingbird arrival in 2018 took place on April 4. If you don’t have your feeders outdoors and waiting for them, it’s time to do so.
As always, I love to hear from readers about their first hummingbird sighting of the year. Jot down the time and date and contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also report your sightings on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. I can hardly wait for one of our favorite birds to get back. Let’s give them a hearty welcome.
Veronica Rausch contacted me by email to share a story of the nuthatches that frequent the feeders at her home in central Oregon.
“I have a small flock of pygmy nuthatches coming into the feeders next to my dining room window on a regular basis,” Veronica wrote, adding that the nuthatches began their visits about three weeks ago.
Veronica wrote that she lives in the pine forests of Central Oregon at an elevation of about 4,200 feet.
“The pygmy nuthatches are delightful little birds and share the feeders with the chickadees and juncos,” she wrote. “The bigger birds such as the Stellar’s jays and the woodpeckers will cause them to leave.”
Veronica has also enjoyed observing their unusual antics. “I saw one do a little dance on a branch by the suet feeder,” she described in her email. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to grab the camera fast enough! I hope they stick around.”
I replied to Veronica’s email, noting how I consider her fortunate to be hosting the smallest of North America’s nuthatches at her home. Admitting to some envy at her good fortune, I explained that I hope to some day add this species to my life list so I can check all of the continent’s nuthatches off my list of target birds.
Even by nuthatch standards, the pygmy nuthatch is a small bird. In appearance, this nuthatch shows buffy-white underparts contrasted with a brown head and a slate-gray back. They often breed in large extended family flocks, so the four individuals observed by Veronica might very well have been closely related to each other.
Nesting pygmy nuthatches are often assisted in their chores by “nest helpers,” which are close relatives that help the busy parents gather food and feed hungry young. These nest helpers also deliver food to females as they incubate eggs and will mount a spirited defense of a nest threatened by intruders. Their communal nature extends to nocturnal roosting when many individuals will huddle together to ensure their combined body heat helps them survive extremely cold nights.
So how small is the pygmy nuthatch? The adults are barely four inches long and weigh only a third of an ounce. A common fountain pen weighs more than this tiny nuthatch, which goes a long way towards explaining the bird’s scientific name, sitta pygmaea.
Pygmy nuthatches are not at all likely to be found in the Mountain Empire or any adjacent areas, but there is another small nuthatch that is found in some extremely localized habitats in the region. The brown-headed nuthatch is a specialist of pine woodlands throughout the southeastern United States, favoring loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines. This nuthatch requires standing dead trees for nesting and roosting. They forage for food, however, on live pines. The birds are more abundant in older pine stands.
I saw several brown-headed nuthatches during a recent stay on Fripp Island in South Carolina. I’ve also observed this small nuthatch during visits to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia, as well as various other locations in South Carolina. This nuthatch even occurs in the Mountain Empire region, most recently with four of these birds being found at Washington County Park on South Holston Lake near Bristol during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count conducted by the Bristol Bird Club.
These small birds will occasionally forage close to the ground, but they are often in the upper branches of pine trees. Their presence is often revealed by their call, which sounds amazingly like a squeeze toy. They produce their “squeaky toy” call persistently when agitated or curious. Brown-headed nuthatches often associate with mixed flocks in company with Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, pine warblers and other small songbirds.
The power of flight gives most birds a perfectly valid reason to disregard the power of gravity. The family of tree-clinging birds known as nuthatches lives an even more topsy-turvy lifestyle than many other of their winged kin. Nuthatches prefer a headfirst stance, even “walking” upside down as they search for food in the nooks and crannies of tree trunks and branches.
The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy. White-breasted nuthatches are probably the most familiar nuthatch to backyard birders in this area.
Because of their gravity-defying antics, the white-breasted nuthatch and other members of the family can provide hours of entertainment at our bird feeders. Individual white-breasted nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on the way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to watch the jerky progress along the trunk as this bird prepares for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet.
At my home, nuthatches typically remain aloof from the always-ongoing rivalry between the chickadees and titmice. The white-breasted nuthatch is also a no-nonsense visitor. Rarely distracted by disturbances among other birds, this nuthatch is content to grab a seed and go or hang on to the wire frame of a suet basket and peck off chunks of suet.
The more numerous titmice and chickadees give way when a white-breasted nuthatch claims a feeder. At times, however, among the frantic activity, a tufted titmouse or a Carolina chickadee will forget itself and fly to a position on a feeder already claimed by a nuthatch. If surprised enough to retreat to a nearby perch, the nuthatch will go through a rather comical little dance to express its displeasure. Wings spread out in a rigid pose, the bird will turn around in tight circles, showing definite resentment at being displaced by an offending chickadee or titmouse.
The stubby red-breasted nuthatch is another member of the family that occasionally finds its way to our yards. Smaller than the related white-breasted nuthatch and, as far as I can tell, complacent in the company of chickadees and titmice, the red-breasted nuthatch is always a welcome visitor. It has a tell-tale “yank yank” call that it produces when excited that sounds very much like little tin horns. The red-breasted nuthatch, perhaps because it spends so much of the year in more remote areas, can also be amazingly tame when it pays a winter visit.
Nuthatches can be attracted to feeders by offering peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. They are also cavity-nesting birds, but are more reluctant about accepting a nesting box as a place to rear young. They will gladly accept an old woodpecker hole or other natural cavity in a tree.
I also want to complete my list of North American nuthatches by adding the fourth species — pygmy nuthatch — to my life list. I have made two trips to western North America, where this species ranges, but haven’t managed to find this bird. Both the pygmy and brown-headed are among the smallest members of the nuthatch family.
On the other end of the size scale is the appropriately named giant nuthatch, which reaches a length of almost eight inches. The giant nuthatch ranges through China, Thailand and Burma. This nuthatch is bigger than a downy woodpecker, one of our more common visitors at backyard feeders in our region.
Worldwide, there are about 25 species of nuthatches, some of which have surprisingly descriptive names for birds that spend most of their lives creeping in obscurity along the trunks and branches of trees. Some of the more creative common names for these little birds are inspired by locations around the globe, giving us species like Siberian nuthatch, Kashmir nuthatch, Burmese nuthatch, Bahama nuthatch, Algerian nuthatch, Indian nuthatch and Chinese nuthatch.
These birds are named “nuthatch” for the habit of some species to wedge a large seed in a crack and hack at it with their strong bills. I like to refer to them as “upside-down birds” because of their gravity-defying nature. It must give them an interesting perspective on the world around them.