For my annual bash of June birthdays this year I created a card featuring an Anna’s Hummingbird. It was nice to deal with the social obligations in ‘one fell swoop’ as it were. (ha ha!)
The first hummingbird I ever saw was the Rufous, although I was somewhat perplexed back then that it bore the same name as my aunt’s Irish setter. Moving to the coast a few years ago, I was delighted to discover the hardy little hummer named for a nineteenth century French duchess—the Anna’s Hummingbird—stays with us year round. It was an Anna’s I tried to depict for my June cards; the flowers were a generic floral ‘suggestion’ using what paint was left from the bird.
The birds Audubon called ‘glittering fragments of the rainbow’ grab attention and earn respect for many reasons; their iridescence, which depends on the refraction of the sun’s rays, is but one. These tiny creatures are the only bird species capable of flying in any direction. And furthermore, they are the only ones who can hover in mid air. Even after studying this diagram from a TimeLife book I’m not sure I totally grasp the mechanics.
Hummers require huge amounts of high-energy food, with nectar and protein-rich insects forming their main diets. This Wikipedia account provides lots of good information about the Anna’s, including several images.
It also describes how hummers capture insects (diving with mouth wide open) and mentions a somewhat horrifying end for many: impaling a wasp or bumblebee only to have their beak enshrouded in a hard insect casing leading to death by starvation.
My TimeLIfe book has other fun facts, such as the comparison of a hummer’s daily metabolic needs relative to that of a 170-pound man: he would have to consume TWICE his weight in potatoes OR 280 pounds of hamburger! And I thought stocking the fridge for one male teenager was challenging.
On the domestic front I learn the female hummer does all the feeding and chick-raising, the male being quite the gad-about (polygamous). Lucky for her, she usually hatches but two tiny jellybean size eggs in an expandable nest. My resource says all 338 species of hummingbirds ‘build dainty nests of lichens, mosses, or leaves, lined with thistledown or soft plant fiber, which are lashed to a limb with cobwebs and molded to the shape of the mother bird’s breast.” Hence, as the diminutive chicks grow their nest expands to accommodate them. Now that is convenient.
A few pages over I discover these superb aerialists court, mate, eat, drink and fight—virtually everything—on the wing. They are even described as Apodoformes, or ‘footless ones’ because their feet are tiny, and nearly useless. Despite having bone, tendons, and tiny claws, their foot muscles have diminished in the interest of flight to the point where they are virtually unable to perch or walk. You will NOT see a hummingbird strutting down the sidewalk in crow-like fashion, or bopping across the lawn as per a robin seeking worms. Hummers do not even step lively along a branch or twig, let alone scoot up and down tree trunks in the manner of wrens.
Amazing Avian Adaptations:
Other strategic ‘avian engineering’ found in hummingbirds and shared among other bird species to varying degrees include: the extraordinary strength-to-weight ratio of feathers, hollow bones, internal air-filled cavities, the substitution of beaks for teeth, the laying of eggs (instead of lugging around a developing embryo) and even the shrinking of the sex glands between breeding seasons. It is quite understandable then that the hummer would sacrifice its landing gear—feet—in favor of ‘helicopter’ flight mechanics.
Watching them dart up, down, sideways, backwards, start and stop mid air, and flit from feeder to tree limb in nano-seconds it is easy to accept they have the largest pectoral or chest muscles for any animal alive. They represent 25 to 30 per cent of the bird’s total weight. That Wikipedia article mentioned a study recording 55 shakes per second for an Anna’s Hummingbird while in flight: “This shimmy, when done in dry weather, can shake off pollen or dirt from their feathers similar to how a wet shake by a dog removes water. This rate of shaking is the fastest of any vertebrate on earth.”
Not all hummingbirds are alike. My Petersen’s Field Guide supports an art book that notes the Lucifer (now how did he get named?) is the only one to have a slightly ‘de-curved’ beak; all others have needle-like straight ones. All the better to stab into what we gardeners aptly call ‘hummingbird flowers’, i.e. brightly colored ones with long, slender throats: hibiscus, hollyhock, daylily, and so on.
Art before biology:
Most of this amazing stuff I learned after the fact, after I had actually turned my hand to painting an Anna’s for Number One son’s birthday card. From his ‘big easy’ he loves to watch the comings and goings of a feisty little fellow who sips his way around the neighborhood. And when I discovered a quick study for an Anna’s Hummingbird (the Walter Foster’s series, Chinese Brush by Lucy Wang) the choice was easy.
Step One: With the blackest ink and a detail brush define needle-like beak, ink in the eye just behind the beak.
Step Two: With a slightly larger soft brush dab in the green head and beginnings of the two wings. With a small scruffy brush (one that doesn’t hold a tip well is perfect here) loaded with soft grey tip in the chin and breast.
Step Three: Wing and tail feathers are depicted with black ink, the whirring tail with light grey. Use a small brush on the wing but go back to the scruffy brush for the tail.
Step Four: Details need to be done carefully so as not to botch the whole bird. First use a detail brush to line up white specks over the head, and down the throat. You can also fix your eye if you need to; sometimes I am lucky to leave a white gleam just where it is needed when I do the eyeball. When the white is dry (pat with paper towel to check) you want to wash first his head with a light wash of bluish green, and then his throat with a magenta. Gauging just the right shades for the washes, the right amount of wash to remove from the heel of your brush, and the right placement of the bristles in order NOT to bleed outside his head ALL take practice. These washes provide a glaze of suffused color in the same way I painted the silvery fish scales in my salmon last year.
Lucy Wang’s book also features a Lucifer Hummingbird but does not do justice to its distinguishing brilliant purple gorget. It also sports an unusually forked tail and hence is called a ‘shear tail’. Still curious about it name, I found one online source that suggested the connection is made between ‘Lucifer’ which is Latin for ‘light-bearing’, and the iridescent feathers. I’d like to think it had something to do with the Lucifer’s naughty propensity for ‘little devil-like’ behavior in snitching nectar from agaves (normally pollinated by bats) without spreading pollen where it’s needed because he is too small to connect the points in an agave blossom.
My own fascination with hummingbirds, aside from addressing the June glut of family birthdays, still relates mostly to the species named Rufous, his name aptly stemming from his coloring. He is the only North American hummer to sport a reddish-brown on his back. When I checked to confirm the hummers of my childhood were indeed the Rufous, I was delighted to discover a current resident in the Robson Valley has a special relationship with this tiny bird as told in this article from the Valley Sentinel. Apparently my childhood turf is a natural stopping-off point for the bird en route to its northern summer territories; they are now being banded for scientific study.
And I thought getting those tiny little white dots lined up down my Anna’s head was painstaking; several photos accompanying the Valley Sentinel article shows the bander working with tweezers to cut and number miniature leg bands! He’s made little straight-jackets to hold them in that calming ‘upside-down’ position for the few minutes he works on them.
On a long ago trip through Mt. Robson Park in early June we spied a feeder near our picnic table being used by a host of Rufous Hummingbirds. (I lost count after 50!) Nearby the fields were filled with masses of lupins in pinks, magentas, blues and purples, but the feeder proved to be the main attraction.
Despite numerous camera hijinks I could NOT get a decent photograph showing all the hummers in play, they were simply too quick. They emptied this and several other feeders several times a day, according to park staff. I should be thankful the Anna’s Hummers don’t pile up like this while they winter in Victoria; I much prefer mixing paints to cleaning and maintaining bird-feeders. They do make colorful subjects for traditional Chinese bird-flower compositions.