Hostile Hummingbirds

(This column was first published in the September 18, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Hummingbirds are feisty little birds.

    That conclusion was underscored for me last week in Alabama when I spent parts of several days watching seven or eight of these combative midgets visiting my brother-in-law's syrup feeders.

    I sat on a screened porch looking out over his parched yard into the hundred degree heat, the browns outmatching the greens following almost three years of drought. A half dozen of the trees in the hedgerow that backs his property a hundred yards away have not made it; they stand leafless or with a few remnant brown leaves still clinging to winter-stark branches.

    But as far as wildlife is concerned, this could have been a yard in western New York. A cardinal occasionally flew by. Butterflies -- cabbage whites, sulphurs, black swallowtails and viceroys -- patrolled the lawn. A pair of titmice and a lovely bluebird visited the long-needled pines between this house and the next. A praying mantis sat quietly on a hedge twig. A Carolina wren chortled from the grape arbor. The cone-headed grasshoppers fiddled harshly in the background. And the hummingbirds dashed about with no regard for the heat.

    My wife and I have had little luck attracting hummers to our yard in Amherst. We set out feeders until we decided we were depleting our neighborhood of ants by attracting them to our sugar water. Instead we now put out hanging plants -- fuchsias, red as recommended. They are attractive esthetically but they bring us only one or two hummingbird visits a summer. I doubt that we are doing anything wrong; our suburban home simply isn't in hummingbird territory. I see many rural feeders being visited regularly.

    In any case, our New York failure made me appreciate all the more mybrother-in-law's success. He has set out three feeders, different models of those inverted sugar water-filled glass bowls with their bases circumscribed by fake yellow flowers that advertise drinking tubes.

    As nearly as I could determine, there were three male birds, each one having adopted one of the feeders as its personal territory. When not drinking from it, the one "owning" the feeder I watched more often, would sit in a nearby crepe myrtle or high overhead in one of the pines, where it could witness any interlopers. There it would expose its iridescent red gorget in the bright sunlight. (Only the adult males sported this brilliant red. The throats of the other birds -- females and young -- were white.)

    When one of the other hummers would try to visit the feeder, the owner would zoom in at terrific speed and a dogfight would ensue. How those tiny brains can drive them through such intricate maneuvers is beyond me. Barely inches apart they would race around the corner of the house, swoop back through several Englemann turns, zoom up fifty or sixty feet into the sky, only finally after perhaps ten seconds of these intricate acrobatics to separate, the male returning to its guard post, the other bird retreating into the distance.

    When they passed close by, I could hear the hum of their wings, but this was nothing to the sound of the broad-tailed hummingbirds I have observed in the West. And the ruby-throated hummingbirds make mouse-like squeaking noises. The only other sound I heard from them was a thrum that resulted when one flew into the screen seeking to investigate my red shirt.

    I did discover how the excluded birds got to the feeders by getting up at dawn one morning. There in the near dark and before the males were active, all four sipped deeply from tubes at the same feeder. -- Gerry Rising