The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote about the hummingbird: "Flying spark of water. Incandescent drop of American fire. Lighted summary of jungle, precise celestial rainbow . . ."
His words perfectly capture the evanescent habit of these tiny creatures, among the most exquisite and beloved in the garden. Now, hummingbird lovers in the Philadelphia area are enjoying the springtime return of the native ruby-throats, the only hummingbird species out of 339 that breeds east of the Mississippi River.
Suzanne Kimball of Lower Merion saw her first male in the backyard on April 23, followed a week later by a female out front. The males are standouts - especially in sunlight, with their red throat-bibs and iridescent green heads and backs - and are the first to return from winters in Mexico or Central America to scope out a spot for breeding.
"I've always loved birds, but hummingbirds are like flying jewels. Their colors are so beautiful," says Kimball, who's been observing and photographing hummingbirds for a dozen years.
The male claims his territory in preparation for coupling, a ritual that sounds like a sex-crazed break dance. To win his lady, he zooms up about eight feet at top speed, then flutters side to side, wings beating, heart thumping. Thanks to incredibly flexible shoulder joints, this three-inch creature with the heft of a penny can also hover and fly backward or upside down.
The female usually picks the flashiest guy to mate with, which must be an interesting show in itself, given that male hummingbirds lack the singular appendage that drives the human male's reproductive imperative.
Soon, the impregnated female is building her nest, which is yet another wondrous thing. It's no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball, with a shape one hummingbird diarist described as akin to "a 'Jackie O' pillbox hat."
It's made of white spider webbing that expands with the babies, bits of moss, and camouflaging lichen. It's lined with thistle and dandelion down, which the mother stamps in place with her petite feet.
Within a few days, she lays two white eggs the size of pinto beans that hatch in about two weeks.
Conventional wisdom has the dad skipping out on parent duty, but Kimball insists otherwise. "He helps the fledglings out of the nest," she says. "I've seen him bring the baby to the feeder. I've seen him bring the baby to the flowers."
Hummingbirds feed on sugar-rich nectar inside tube-shaped flowers, acting as pollen magnets as they slurp, and on feeders that gardeners fill with sugar water. They also eat protein-rich gnats, spiders, and mosquitoes, and pine sap out of holes drilled by migrating sapsuckers.
Despite near-universal belief to the contrary, hummers aren't drawn exclusively to red flowers.
"Hummingbirds can see differently, and some plants that really jump out at us may not at them," says Betsey Ney, director of public programs at Tyler Arboretum in Media.
Bill Hilton Jr. has been studying hummingbirds since 1984 and has heard the red-flower myth a million times.
"What color is most of nature? Green," he says. "What color contrasts most sharply with green? Red. That's why we use holly at Christmastime. It's bright. It's easier to see."
Flowers, like everything else in nature, have adapted over time. Turns out, those with large tubular blossoms and a lot of nectar are often red, coral, or orange.
"In the tropics, hummers feed on white, purple, and yellow. They're opportunistic. If they found a red flower with no nectar, they'd learn pretty quickly to go elsewhere," says Hilton, executive director of the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, S.C., and head of Operation Ruby Throat, which enlists children in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America to study these birds' behavior and distribution.
It's easy to imagine those long, opportunity-seeking beaks acting like straws inside the flower tubes. But this, Hilton explains, is yet another myth: Hummers don't suck nectar through their beaks. Their brushy-tipped, gray tongues lap it up.
And feeders, like nesting turf, bring out their territorial nature. Ney at Tyler recalls standing with friends in front of a house in Ohiopyle, Pa., watching hummingbirds scrap over five feeders on the porch.
"It was very entertaining. The birds were zooming around, grabbing sips of sugar water, and jockeying for position," she says. While they were definitely being aggressive, there was no body checking.
That's been Kimball's experience, too. "It's all for show, a show of strength," she says.
Males - ahem - seem to do a lot of "showing." For all their theatrics, they spend most of their time perching on telephone wires, tree branches, and fences. Hummingbird feet are made for this, rather than walking.
In 30 years of observing, Gregg Aprill, who runs Leaming's Run Gardens in Cape May Court House, N.J., has never seen a hummer mating dance. But each year around the end of August, when the males are preparing to lead the journey south for the winter, he witnesses "an aerial circus."
"Like bats, hummingbirds are amazing in the air," he says. "They never actually run into anything, but they're moving around and tumbling around in the air. And the speed is ridiculous."
Aprill recently planted more than 1,100 cranberry impatiens and red salvia seedlings in the "Serpentine Garden," a snaking swath that attracts hundreds of hummers each summer. (Prime viewing is mid-August to mid-September.)
It's all fun, but for Hilton, it's also about science. "Everyone loves hummers for warm and fuzzy reasons," he says, "but I try to get people to look at what else we can learn from them."
Here's a big lesson, and though it sounds silly, it's actually quite profound, as if all of nature is reflected in that ruby throat.
"Hummingbirds are connected to everything else," Hilton says, "just like everything else is connected to everything else."
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Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/gardeningEndText