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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Backyard Warfare or Ain’t You Gonna Give Me No Sugar?…

Look, Ma, no wings!The leaves on the backyard maple hardly stir. Evening sunlight dapples the leaves, a calming medley of light and shadow. Calla lilies glow a crisp white along the blooming fence, and the hanging baskets on the gazebo brim pink-purple-white. Peonies are in full bloom, crimson and pink globes staking their claim along the split rails. Delphinium (delphiniums? delphinia?), blue and white spikes nearly head high, lend a touch of pastel to the scene. Both arbors are bursting with honeysuckle. You’d think the backyard would be a scene of peace and tranquility. But you’d be mistaken: the hummingbirds are carbo-loading, pumping themselves full of syrup energy, sucrose sustenance until dawn’s early light. The evening warfare has begun.

It is a territorial battle over sugar, for a turn at the syrup spigot. This season we have two species of hummers in the backyard. Our pair of Anna’s came in winter and have remained (but then weather-wise, so has winter, hasn’t it?). Anna's hummerMiniatures in gray, Anna’s are sooty little birds with splashy pink iridescent gorgets at their throats. When they are agitated, they flare their tails and display white- tipped black tail feathers. Anna’s are congenial little hummers. I have seen our two take turns at the feeder; a few sips for one which then graciously hovers aside to let the other take its turn.Agitated Anna's

If your backyard hummer has light brown flanks, especially along the base of the wings, you are observing a resident Rufous. When this species flares its tail in agitation, you’ll note the yellowish tail feathers. The male Rufous is a spectacular little dervish and it is he that gives the species its name: (rufus from the Latin, “red, red-haired”). In your face RufousThis flame coiffed sprite is an iridescent spark as he flits through the garden from flower to feeder to flower.

Rufous are highly territorial. No sharing of the feeder for them. Once the evening syrup fest is in session, the backyard is a flurry of aerial warfare. No “after you’s” for the roughhousing Rufous. A sip or two for one and then it’s dodge and feint, bob and weave as a competitor zooms in from nowhere and a hummingbird dogfight ensues.

A pair of Rufous’ do battle over sugar

One particularly pugnacious hummer perches on a twig near the window feeder, drives off all comers, then returns to her (yes, “her”; we only have one male Rufous among a harem of females) perch to stand guard. She’s there for combat, apparently, not for dinner.

The timid Anna’s bide their time, wait until their bellicose cousins have scattered each other, sneak in for a brief sip and then they in turn are scattered.

Confused Anna’s Jr. can’t figure it out

The two feeders are not the only article of possession: it’s as if the Rufous are stingy of every honeysuckle cluster, petunia or geranium blossom. Like contentious siblings they battle over everything. When a competitor accosts another at the feeder, it flares its tail feathers in indignation and zooms after it. Nor is this only playful competition either; we observed one female strike another with such force that feathers flew. The backyard is a battleground.

When a feeder empties, the little beggars become incensed, whirr about impatiently for a refill (one part sugar: four parts water. Dismiss the red food color. Hummers will come regardless…). They can’t wait until I rehang the bottle, ignore the human hand that brings the refill, and begin to feed while I’m still holding the feeder.

Hand fed hummer

The tiny things are nearly fearless. The small window feeder holds less than a quarter cup of syrup and I’m refilling it three times a day while the larger—a three holer--holds a cup and half and requires refilling every third day. Between spring feed for the honeybees and syrup for the hummers, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve hauled away a hundred pounds of sugar from Freddie’s this season.

I’ve been told the more feeders on the place, the greater your hummer population. In a nature magazine I saw a photo of a backyard “merry-go-round” clothes line with two or three dozen feeders hanging from the lines. There must have been a hundred or so little long beaks either feeding or perching on the clothesline. Another tip I read in a magazine came from a woman who places seeded out cattails around her yard as nesting material for her resident hummers (supposedly hummingbirds nest close to their food supply; I’d like to encourage them to nest here on the place). Good idea, I thought, and stuck three furred out ‘tails on posts in the hedge. So far only pine siskins and gold finches have helped themselves to the down, but the hummingbirds haven’t shown much interest. I did see our male Rufous perched atop one of the cattails surveying his domain. Checking out the ladies, perhaps?

Perhaps you’ve picked up on my less than subtle complaint about expenditure on sugar. When you think about the cost of a ticket, popcorn and sugary drinks at the movie theatre these days, any capital outlay on hummingbird food is well worth it for the sheer entertainment value. Watching a backyard full of pugnacious, warring hummers jockeying for an evening repast, dive bombing each other, vying for feeder airspace is real time Reality theatre. And all it takes is a feeder or two, a little time and, of course, sugar. Nancy L's hummer nest

This past week national headlines announced the death of Rodney King whose beating at the hands of over reactive L.A. police in 1991 caused interracial chaos in the city and consequently involved the entire nation in racial controversy. Although history will undoubtedly be harsh on King, I would hope in the midst of the escalating 1992 riots caused by the acquittal of four arresting officers, his words to the press will to some degree validate Rodney’s checkered forty-seven years of life. At a news conference May 1, 1992, King uttered these memorable words: “Can we all get along?” Given human nature and current world events, “Not very likely,” I believe, is the unfortunate answer to King’s question. And if my backyard is any indication, it’s not likely to happen with the hummingbirds any time soon either.

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