Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Swimming With Hummingbirds

We have a small swimming pool in the back garden with a rather high wall between us and our back neighbor. Trees, shrubs and flowers fill that four foot planting bed behind the pool, making that entire back wall look like a garden stage set. When we first moved in we noticed two hummingbirds buzzing around the beds of pink roses, needlepoint beaks at the ready. That's something you don't see in England, so we hung up two hummingbird feeders on trees at each end of the 'stage set'.
Then there were three. Then four. Now we regularly see five of the little buggers when we are paddling our way across the pool. Did they have babies? The nest would probably fit into a thimble but we haven't spotted it. Last spring we saw a swarm of at least fourteen birds––but they only came by once, took a look at us paddling and whizzed on elsewhere. They never came back and for a while five hummingbirds (known to be territorial) flew back and forth between the two feeders with a few side trips to tree tops and flowers.
One bird we call The Boss has taken to standing guard on a branch near the right feeder. If another bird approaches, The Boss will buzz off its perch and zoom in at the intruder, chasing it away before it can get a sip. He/she lands back on the branch, ready to see off any pesky sippers. That feeder is reserved. The Boss helicopters up to a maple tree just over the wall where it has a wider view of marauders. When satisfied the coast is clear it zips down to its favorite spot near the bottle. According to the experts whose knowledge I plunder,  hummingbirds spend 80% of their day just sitting.
The other feeder is left completely undefended but no contender approaches it. Sometimes, when things quiet down, two or three birds will feed from it in convivial joy, but the Boss doesn't seem to care.
We usually swim at the end of the day.  Hummingbirds zoom over us, pausing like mini-helicopters––a startling sight right above our heads. They peer at us as if to say, "You here again?' Well, keep our feeders full and what about that vanilla?"
Yes, vanilla. Each feeder holds two cups of liquid. I make it fresh, two quarts at a time with a mix of two cups of sugar to eight cups of water. Then I add three drops of red vegetable coloring because the birds are supposedly attracted to red. One day I accidentally put in vanilla drops, and seeing my mistake, hastily added the red food color.
Peter hung out the bottles. Each has four little plastic flowerets at the bottom pierced with tiny sipping holes just wide enough for a hummingbird's thinly curved beak. They land on a little perch and sip. More often they pause in mid-air, wings whirring, sipping a bit now and then before flying off to a nearby tree. One bottle could last three days or even more. But after the accidental vanilla, the next morning, both bottles were empty.
How thirsty could they get? The mystery deepened. Had they given up on all the flowers in the neighborhood? Had I turned these dainty creatures into vanilla junkies???
One way to find out.  I cleaned and refilled the bottles. In went the vanilla and the little critters knocked the stuff back like it was going out of style.
It was. A friend came by and when I told her about the vanilla, she reacted in horror. I must surely be killing them! Think of their tiny digestive systems, she wailed Actually, I couldn't think of it, it was too tiny.  But I stopped putting in the vanilla, just in case. And I did notice that the bottles took about 2 or 3 days to empty again.
Anybody out there got any ideas about the vanilla? Is it bad for humming birds?  How about some conversation about these amazing little creatures who only seem to live in the Americas.?


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