"Bayou Bill" Scifres
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Some Hummingbird Observations
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Scifres

It seems that bird enthusiasts--more specifically those who thrill to the antics of hummingbirds--have been fed a steady stream of half-truths about this diminutive avian.

Oh, sure! The hummingbirds--of which there are many--probably are the swiftest flyers on the wing (excluding swept-wing jet planes), and they quite obviously are fond of sugar-water solutions and the nectar of many flowers.

It may also be said, with some assurance that you will not be repudiated, that the hummer spends most of his waking hours on the wing, resting only in short takes.

The purpose of this column is not to pooh-pooh this steady stream of hummingbird facts (frankly, I have always tended to think them romantic, exciting). But recently I have observed some hummer behavior that set me to thinking.

Could it be, I thought, that while a good part of a hummingbird's diet obviously is sugar (from feeders) or nectar from flowers, it is possible that they also feed on winged insects? 

Could it also be that hummingbirds rest often when they are not even close to their nests? 

My own observations of hummers attracted to the sugar-water feeder outside the double glass doors of my den and elsewhere have left little doubt that hummers are quite sedentary. I observed one hummer sitting still (pruning and performing other bird chores) for eight minutes. I do not recall ever seeing any other bird sit in one place for that long.

But how about the insects? My observations could not verify that possibility.

Thus I asked the person I consider to be one of the best, most authoritative, bird people I know. I didn't have to go far.

Patricia (Pat) Newforth, the lady who designed my web page and serves as its manager, has a web page of her own on birds. For years she has studied birds in many parts of the United States.

My question on what hummingbirds eat brought an immediate response in the form of the bird wisdom of A. C. Bent, author of the 21-volume Life Histories of American Birds, published between 1919 and 1968 by the U.S. Government Printing Office in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum.

Ms. Newforth's web page, Familiar Birds, includes an online book of the writing of Bent and many collaborators and correspondents.

Here's what A.C. Bent wrote about the ruby-throated hummingbird's diet:

FOOD--The hummingbird is popularly regarded as solely a sipper of nectar, as it buzzes from flower to flower. . . but when it comes down to the examination of stomach contents, it is proved that a considerable part of the bird's food consists of insects, chiefly those that come to the flowers the hummingbird visits.

Frederic A. Lucas (1892), after examining the contents of 29 stomachs of several species of hummingbirds, comes to the following conclusion: 

"It would seem to be safe to assume that the main food of Hummingbirds is small insects, mainly diptera and hymenoptera. Hymenoptera are usually present, and small spiders form an important article of food, while hemiptera and coleoptera (winged insects) are now and then found. The small size of the insects may be inferred from the fact that one stomach contained remains of not less than fifty individuals, probably more.

"Most of the insects found occur in or about flowers, and my own views agree with those of Mr. Clute, that it is usually insects, and not honey, that attract Hummingbirds to flowers . . . In view, however, of the testimony cited at the beginning of this paper, it would seem unquestionable that Hummingbirds do to some extent feed on the nectar of flowers and the sap of trees . . .

"I am much inclined to believe with Dr. Shufeldt that Hummingbirds first visited flowers for insects and that the taste for sweets has been incidentally acquired."

Hummingbirds also avail themselves of the sap flowing from holes drilled by sapsuckers. . . . Frank Bolles (1894) speaks of the hummingbirds as constant and numerous visitors to the sapsucker's "orchards."

Wilson (1831) charmingly notes his experience with the hummingbird as a flycatcher thus: 

"I have seen the hummingbird, for half an hour at a time, darting at those little groups of insects that dance in the air in a fine summer evening, retiring to an adjoining twig to rest, and renewing the attack with a dexterity that sets all our other flycatchers at defiance."

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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