Broad-tailed Hummingbirds

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Is that a hummingbird nest? I had to look carefully to find the tiny cup nestled among the ponderosa branches. Sure enough—a female Broad-tailed Hummingbird stared pointedly back at me, as she dutifully sat on what I could only assume were a couple of pea-sized eggs.

What really impressed me was the way the secretive bird had camouflaged her home. Lichens grew on the tree branches, and covered the outer surface of the nest. It looked like just one more bump on the bark, although with a diminutive bird sitting on top.

broadtail-hummingbird-home-20090601-lah-799rBroad-tailed Hummingbirds are fascinating little creatures. They are known as pugnacious visitors at sugar-water feeders throughout the interior western U.S. However, sugar in various forms makes up only a tiny fraction of their diet. Insects and other tiny arthropods provide the fats and proteins that nectar lacks. While the birds are sipping nectar from your garden, they’re also on bug patrol. In fact, they can nip those insects right out of the air—and enjoy dinner on the wing.

In El Paso county, we typically hang our feeders out just after tax day, hoping to attract the earliest migrants as they make their way northward. Where have these bird been all winter? Since they eat bugs, hummingbirds must go where the bugs are. In this case, that means Mexico and Guatemala. I find it truly astonishing that something so small can fly so far. Yet they do it every year… a round trip to their nesting grounds in the Great Basin and south-central Rockies, then back again.

Once they’re arrived, it’s time to build that tiny nest I saw. While the males may compete for a breeding territory, the female does all the construction work. Weaving small twigs, rootlets and other plant materials into a small cup, she lines the inside with plant down (such as fuzzy seeds), and decorates the outside with lichens, bits of moss, and plant fibers. Spider webs are used to attach the nest securely to a branch. Broad-tails may nest in the same tree year after year, even building a new nest on top of an old one.

hummingbird-nestlings-cs-lah-1reTwo small white eggs are laid, and incubated for 14 to 17 days. At first the young rely on their mother for care; three weeks or so later they are able to leave the nest and fend for themselves.

Of course, it’s our pleasure to help them a bit, by hanging out feeders. And just in case you’re concerned, it’s all right to leave those feeders up until after all the birds have migrated southward, usually the middle of October. You won’t delay their departure, and you might provide just the added boost those late stragglers need.

plh_5728-1Fill your feeders with one part plain, white granulated sugar to four parts water, heated enough to dissolve the sugar. Leave out the red food coloring. It won’t make your offering any more attractive, and it may actually harm the birds. Replace the sugar solution often, especially if your feeder is in the hot sunlight, and thoroughly clean the feeder between refills.

After spending so much time tracking down elusive species, I find extra enjoyment in playing hostess to such bright and brazen birds. Who knows, you might even induce them to nest in your yard.

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