Foam Lake Birding No. 177

No. 177
            Our flower beds are in full bloom and with that an accompanying increase of flower loving wildlife like butterflies, bees and of course one of nature's wonders, the hummingbirds. 
            Different orders of birds differ significantly from other orders of birds ("order" is the first classification of birds into different groups).  For example, ducks and geese, although different, are similar enough to belong to the same order. The same goes for the robin and raven.  On the other hand, ducks and robins are in different orders.  However, when it comes to being different the hummingbirds "take the cake" as it were.  Here are some of their unique characteristics:
                            1). As a group they are the smallest birds in the world.  The smallest is the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba; the largest is the robin-sized Giant Hummingbird of South America. 
                            2). The wing structure is modified allowing for much greater rotation at the shoulder giving the hummer greater manoeuvrability in flight and the wrist joint is fused for greater stability at high rpm.
                             3). They have oversized breast muscles capable of driving the wings up to 80 flaps per second.  These last two characteristics allow the hummer to fly backwards, sideways, straight up and down, hover and even fly upside down.  No other bird can do this.  By comparison a crow flaps its wings about 4 times a second; a House Sparrow about 10 and all have to be moving forward to stay aloft.  The rapid wing beat produces a humming sound from which the birds get their name of "hummingbirds".   
                            4). Flying takes a lot of energy and the hummers need it in spades.  In fact most "normal" bird foods would not provide sufficient energy quickly enough to keep a hummer going and the only naturally ready source of such energy is the sugar in the nectar of flowers.  (Yes, flower nectar has the very same sugar that is found in your sugar bowl).  They consume at least their body weight in sugar daily ("treats" would not be a health concern) and augment their diets with small insects for protein.  This very high rate of energy consumption has another serious drawback - the hummer has to feed constantly to survive.  However, like all birds and animals it, also, has to sleep which it does at night but to go that long without food the hummer could starve by morning.  To avoid starving the hummer goes into a kind of overnight hibernation called "torpor" where the heartbeat drops from several hundred to about 30 resulting in very little energy demand.  In the morning, with its energy load intact, the hummer takes a few minutes to "wake" up then carries on with its daily activities. 
                            5). Without getting into too much scientific detail different colour is simply light with different frequencies (red being the lowest frequency and violet the highest).   Using voice as an analogy: red would be base and violet would be soprano.  Most of the colour that we see is caused by reflection.  For example, a green tree absorbs all frequencies except green which it reflects and we sense it with our eyes as green (assuming no colour blindness).  This reflective material is known as pigment.  Like most birds hummers have pigment but they also have prismatic cells in some of their feathers especially the throat area (referred to as gorgets) that break up light (refract) into the various colours the same way that crystal chandeliers do.  The effect is that the bird glows or looks iridescent.  Thus the gorget of the male hummer usually looks all black because it does not carry any pigment and therefore does not reflect any light but, when he decides to "impress the ladies" he knows the exact angle to turn his head and body so as catch good sunlight and refract whatever colour he has been endowed with (usually red).  The females seem to approve. 
            There are 320 different species of hummingbirds in the world and all are in the Americas with about 15 or so showing up in the US (mostly in Arizona), 5 in Canada and 2 in Saskatchewan.  The common one around here is the Ruby Throated with the odd stray Rufous.  The male Rufous is almost all copper coloured and in good sunlight shines like a newly minted copper penny. It is very common in  the Rocky Mountains  In flight the wings make a high pitched metallic whine and several males at a feeder is quite spectacular. 
            Male hummers are more brightly coloured than the females which do not have prismatic gorgets.  Like egrets and swallows hummers were also hunted for their feathers for the fashion industry just over a century ago.  Because of the prismatic nature of  a hummer's feathers they were utilized more like jewellery.  The more colourful the bird the greater the demand and the higher the price.    
                                    Most birds raise their young as a couple with both parents actively involved in rearing them.  One notable exception is the duck family where the hen has the sole responsibility to raise the young.  Well, in that regard the female hummer is like a hen duck - she raises the young all by herself.  The male joins other males in a kind of bachelor group and spends the summer further north.  That is why males are seldom seen around town much beyond mid summer. 
            This week's  pictures were taken in our backyard a few years ago.  The male is at the feeder; the female is at the Kent Bells.  The male's gorget appears black but the back feathers are an iridescent green.  This is the one big advantage of the digital camera - it captures the iridescence of the bird that a film camera never could.   To really appreciate the iridescence log on to my website