The (Humming) Birds and the Bees

The (Humming) Birds and the Bees

i Apr 30, 2024 No Comments by

By Brittany Richards

Pollen – so much pollen – is not the only thing wafting on the breeze these days. Love is also in the air! Signs of nature’s fecundity are all around us this time of year. For all of us backyard birders, we delight to see the mating pairs of so many of our songbirds succumbing to the call of the season; the males wooing their mates with fancy feathers and fanciful flights. We know in a few weeks’ time we will see the fruits of their efforts when our feeders are visited by the first fledglings, feathers still fluffy, wings still wobbly. So what about Ruby-throated romance? How do our hummingbirds court and couple?

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird courtship story is a brief affair, more fling than lasting love. It begins when the migrating males arrive first in the summer breeding grounds and stake a claim. They will look for abundant food sources and then aggressively defend an area of up to a quarter acre. Tiny but feisty, males jealously guard both food and females within their boundaries. While these fights are typically more about intimidation than injury, with flaring feathers, harsh chirps, and darting dives, there may be occasional casualties. If you find an injured bird, it is best to confine it in a small container, like a shoebox, lined with a towel, and take it to a nearby wildlife rehabilitator. (On the Wake Audubon “Links” page you can find a list of local organizations under “Injured birds and other wildlife”.) 

Threat Display. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Threat Display. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Food is such a precious resource for hummingbirds who need to feed so frequently that females will also guard food sources such as nectar feeders. To encourage fewer squirmishes, you can plant flowers to offer more feeding locations in your yard, or put out multiple feeders. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers this advice: “Overall, you’ll feed far more hummingbirds by setting out four tiny one-port feeders than one giant eight-port one. Spread them out and the birds won’t have to see one another, arousing their territoriality.”

But back to our love story! After a male has successfully claimed a territory, he will attempt to mate with as many females as possible. When a potential mate is within his range, he will try to get her attention with a courtship display that includes whirring and chirping, flashing the feathers of his gorget (that beautiful ruby throat of his name), and a signature U-shaped flight with dramatic dives from as high as 50 feet above her. When she is perched, he will make short flights buzzing back and forth in front of her. Like many facets of this solitary and somewhat secretive bird’s life cycle, it is not precisely known which aspects of this behavior are most persuasive to females. The flashiness of his throat? The energeticness of his display? But some studies of hummingbirds suggest it is the quality of his territory more than his physical attributes that is most attractive. 

Male with gorget on full display. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

Male with gorget on full display. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

When a male has successfully won the affection of the female, the act of mating lasts only a few seconds. As with most birds, this involves a “cloacal kiss” where the cloacae (the single rear opening that is used for digestive, urinary, and reproductive purposes) are briefly pressed together. And this is where the romance ends! Unlike the doting males of some species, who may build the nest or feed their partner or help rear the young, Ruby-throated males will part ways as soon as mating is complete, leaving the female to perform all the duties of raising the young on her own. But while she may be a single parent, she may still receive some indirect support from the male. There is some debate whether females will build their nests precisely in the territory of their mating partner, or a neighboring territory of her own. But it is believed that she and her young will benefit from the male’s territorial guarding in her vicinity because she and her young will have less competition for nearby food sources. 

Ruby-throats are definitively polygynous, meaning the males will mate with multiple females in a season. But it is also believed that they are polygynandrous, meaning the females will mate with multiple males as well. A female will have one to two broods a year, with a single brood more common in the northern part of the breeding range where the season is shorter, and a third brood being possible in the southernmost part of the range where the season is longest. Here in North Carolina, a female will typically have two broods, almost always of two eggs each. 

With spring fully sprung, and the season of romance in full swing, hopefully your backyard is aflutter with love birds of all sorts. Meaning in a few weeks time, you’ll be treated to some adorable baby sightings as well! 

A male’s ruffled ruby throat. Photo by Bob Oberfelder.

A male’s ruffled ruby throat. Photo by Bob Oberfelder.


Celebrating our Volunteer Award Winners, Colleen Bockhahn & Larry Zoller!

i Apr 24, 2024 No Comments by

Authored by Jeff Olander, Communications Committee member and volunteer with Wake Audubon.

Happy Volunteer Appreciation week! Did you know that Wake Audubon is an entirely volunteer-run organization? We depend on volunteers to table at events, educate local groups and schools, participate in Advocacy Day, lead nature walks, and so much more. So to all of our volunteers we say a very big Thank You!

Every year we recognize two volunteers for their exceptional service and commitment to the initiatives and goals of Wake Audubon Society. Each receives an award that speaks to their strengths. The Paulette Van De Zande Volunteer Award goes to one who embodies a spirit of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes and interests. The John Connors Conservation & Environmental Education Award honors one who demonstrates significant participation in conservation and environmental education activities for the furthering of Wake Audubon’s mission.

Larry Zoller (Left) receiving his award from WAS President, Dave Powell (right).

We are happy to present this year’s Paulette Van De Zande Volunteer Award to the wonderful Larry Zoller! Larry is our Chair of the Education and Outreach Committee and retired middle school teacher. He is extensively involved in leading bird walks, organizing and presenting nature-oriented talks, and representing Wake Audubon at various events. He loves sharing wildlife discoveries from his frequent international travels and participating in North Carolina Audubon’s Advocacy Day. Larry has a knack for connecting with youth in ways they can relate to, whether it’s setting up a plastic spider jump-scare, showing off animal skulls, or simulating animal skat. 

Recently, Larry was a quiet champion for conservation at Hilltop Needmore Park in Fuquay-Varina. Thanks to his tireless photo documentation of park wildlife, residents were moved to vote down a development bond. Taken together, Larry Zoller’s outstanding contributions to community building, environmental education, and wildlife conservation make him a highly deserving candidate for the Paulette Van De Zande Volunteer Award. His dedication, leadership, and passion for environmental stewardship serve as an inspiration to others, embodying the spirit of volunteerism.

Colleen Bockhahn (left) receiving her award from WAS President, Dave Powell (right).

Colleen Bockhahn (left) receiving her award from WAS President, Dave Powell (right).

Next, we are thrilled to give the 2024 John Connors Conservation & Environmental Education Award to the amazing Colleen Bockhahn! Colleen is an educator and leader in conservation. At Lake Crabtree and White Deer Parks she has supervised many community youth programs including nature walks and Scouts badge achievement. Colleen educated the public on the management of invasive plants while serving on the NC Invasive Plant Council. As a conservation leader, she steered policy for the Town of Cary and Wake County Parks. She has served on the boards of the Carolina Bird Club and Wake Audubon Society. In fact, for two years, Colleen was our very own Chapter President! Her adeptness in crafting job descriptions and onboarding materials has streamlined volunteer roles within Wake Audubon, enhancing our efficiency and effectiveness.

In summary, Colleen’s outstanding service embodies the spirit of the John Connors Conservation and Environmental Education Award. Her dedication, leadership, and passion for environmental conservation have made Wake Audubon and the communities we serve better. Congratulations to both our awardees for 2024! Many thanks to them and to all of you who volunteer with us!

It’s Stress Awareness Month. Let birds be your remedy.

i Apr 23, 2024 No Comments by

Authored by Rick LaRose, Wake Audubon board member and Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging co-chair. Reach Rick at [email protected].

I’ll admit I’m stressed a lot of the time. Work. Relationships. Health concerns. The wellbeing of my nearly 90-year-old parents. Doing my best to be the best son, brother, partner, mentor, coach, co-worker, friend, board member or committee chair I can be. Though I try, I’m not always the best at navigating these, and all the sources of stress can be – well, stressful. 

The catalysts of stress are many. 

Common stressors in our everyday lives can include relationship and family situations, financial worries, health concerns – ours and those we know and love, and work-related issues or academic challenges. 

Stress may be triggered by time constraints, overwhelming expectations and all the demands on us in our day-to-day lives. 

We might feel uncertainty about major life changes, like losing a job, starting a job or moving. 

We might feel stress in our desire to be seen or heard, or to find empathy and understanding. 

We might feel stress about big picture problems like political strife, climate change, systemic inequalities, or the suffering of others around the world due to war or famine. 

There seems no lack of reasons for our stress. Experiencing one or more of these can leave us physically and emotionally worn out. 

Are you stressed too? If so, you are not alone. 

People who live in North Carolina have shown signs of being impacted by stress more than most. North Carolina was ranked seventh out of 49 states across four stress metrics: employment, housing, health, and Google search trends, according to data scientists at Leafwell, as reported by The Charlotte Observer August 2023. 

Those Google search trends included stress-related search terms such as unemployment rates, changes to housing prices, and stress relief and stress remedies, the report stated. 

Our inability to manage stress can lead to more. 

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. NAMI advocates for all who are affected by mental illness, both the individuals and the people in their lives. In particular, they work to address disparities and injustices and to promote dignity and inclusion for all people with mental illness and their families.

According to NAMI, an estimated 1 in every 5 adults experiences mental health problems each year. 

In 2023, our rate of mental illness in NC was 19.8%. 

30.1% of adults have anxiety or depression. 

Our ability – or inability to process stress is a high contributor to this reality for many in our community. Every person has some risk of developing a mental health disorder, regardless of their demographics.

Stress can manifest in both physical and emotional ways.

While in short bursts stress can help to increase productivity or maintain focus, chronic stress takes a toll on overall well-being.

The physical effects of stress on our bodies can be profound, manifesting in increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches, digestive issues and sleep disturbances. 

Emotionally, stress can take a toll on our mental well-being, leading to increased anxiety, worry and nervousness, and persistent feelings of irritability or sadness. 

April calls our attention to stress awareness.

April, designated as Stress Awareness Month by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), brings attention to the diverse sources of stress that impact individuals across various aspects of life. 

NIMH prompts us to learn what causes or triggers our stress and what coping techniques work for us. Activities they recommend include sticking to a sleep routine and getting enough sleep; exercise and healthy regular meals; and relaxation exercises to practice mindfulness, which is a psychological process of actively paying attention to the present moment. 

One way to mitigate stress is right outside. 

Some great news is that there’s a counter to stress right outside our windows and doors. 

As I’m writing this a mockingbird has perched atop my chimney, or fake chimney in that it frames the vent from our gas log fireplace. I’m able to hear it as if it’s in the room. Cycling through its repertoire, I’m allowing myself to pause, to take in the lovely gift of song it’s brought to me. 

I find myself noting the number of times the mockingbird repeats a phrase (known to be 2 – 6) before shifting to a new sound, and the different sounds I hear given that the mockingbird is a skilled imitator of so many other birds, with sharp rasps, scolds and trills among its delivery. 

Compelled to look outdoors, male goldfinches, having reclaimed their bright yellow color, are drifting with females to and from a feeder with sunflower chips. A downy woodpecker is cautiously grasping the feeder pole, staging its next move to a suet cake. A Carolina wren is popping about flowerpots, always the investigator. I can’t help but smile to think that it’s likely seeking to build its nest in our grill again this year. How it manages to do that I haven’t a clue. 

Male and female cardinals dart about and begin to chirp. With the mockingbird now quiet, I faintly hear the slow, thin Old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody’ whistle of a white-throated sparrow – one of my favorite bird songs – which beckons me to slow my pace and be present in the moment with it too. 

All within a few seconds my mind is lifted away from all that was busying it. After that respite I find myself more methodically thinking about my day, ready to take on my tasks ahead. 

The health benefits of birding and bird song are many.

Cognitive stimulation: Engaging in birding (the observation of birds) and listening to bird songs stimulates cognitive function. The sensory experiences of observing birds in their natural habitats and tracking their chirps and songs can be mentally rejuvenating. Learning about different bird species, habitats, and behaviors enhances cognitive skills such as observation, attention, and problem-solving, providing a cognitive challenge and a sense of accomplishment. 

Emotional well-being: The serene environment of natural settings and the beauty of bird songs evoke positive emotions, such as joy, awe, and gratitude, which promote psychological resilience against stress-related mood disturbances and foster contentment. Observing birds and listening to their songs can be meditative experiences, calming the mind.

Physical relaxation: Spending time in nature and engaging in birding also induces physical relaxation and reduces muscle tension. The peaceful ambiance of natural landscapes and the rhythmic sounds of bird songs trigger the relaxation response, lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones like cortisol. 

Physical activity: At the same time, birding often involves outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, and exploring natural environments, promoting physical activity and exercise. Regular physical activity is essential for stress management and overall health, reducing the risk of chronic diseases and improving physical fitness.

Connection with nature: Birding cultivates a sense of wonder and interconnectedness with the natural world. Immersing oneself in natural environments promotes environmental stewardship and a sense of perspective, which can alleviate stress and promote holistic well-being. 

Community and social connection: Birding often fosters a sense of community and social connection among enthusiasts of all birding abilities. Participating in birding groups allows individuals to enjoy companionship with others who share a like curiosity about birds. Our social connection can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are common sources of stress. 

Mindfulness: And as I described, birding and bird song can capture all our attention, immerse us in the present moment, provide respite from worry and promote mental clarity. 

This benefit is well realized by Wildlife Biologist Phil Doerr too: “After many decades of birding, it’s clear to me that this activity requires focus that puts me ‘in the moment’. Closely watching a bird flit erratically through the underbrush to detect field marks and clues to the bird’s identity (wing bars, eye color, rump patch color) requires concentrating all my senses, releasing me from all other competing thoughts or concerns.”

“The bird of the moment captures my entire attention, that is, until the next bird of the moment captures my entire attention, and so the time plays out. All the while I’m surrounded by other birds singing and calling in the canopy above, providing a comforting cacophony that further immerses me in a nature ‘time-out’.” 

Benefits of birds are backed by research. 

A 2022 study involving nearly thirteen hundred self-selected respondents, primarily from the United Kingdom, but also from the European Union, U.S., China, and Australia, concluded that “Everyday encounters with birdlife were associated with time-lasting improvements in mental well-being. These improvements were evident not only in healthy people but also in those with a diagnosis of depression, the most common mental illness across the world.” 

The study indicated that “the effect of birds was greater than what would be expected by being exposed to green spaces. In other words, while nature, in general, has a salutary effect, seeing and hearing birds went beyond that of the outdoors by itself.”

A local mental health advocate knows the benefits first-hand.

I had the pleasure of meeting the new Executive Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Wake County Mark Simon, on a recent Wake Audubon bird outing. Mark is passionate about NAMI’s mission, mentioned above. He’s passionate about birding too, in support of his own mental health, and promotes it to others:

“My own journey with birding began exactly two years ago on April 24, 2022. The stress of graduate school, social isolation, a chronic ankle injury, and a particularly acute flare-up of a mood disorder were taking its toll on my health and wellbeing. Having read an article about the health benefits of birding, I bought a cheap pair of binoculars, downloaded eBird and Merlin, and went for a quick walk in the woods. The half-mile trip lasted just 30 minutes, but proved to be more restorative than any other self-care activity I tried since moving to North Carolina. As time went on, birding became an integral part of my ‘mental health toolkit,’ supplementing professional care and medication.”

“Birding for self-care is unique in its adaptability. It can be enjoyed solo or in group settings. During the day or in the evening. With just your eyes, ears, or both. Off the beaten path, from a car, or even the comfort of your own home. Having the flexibility to tap into this stress reliever no matter my schedule, physical ability, or state of mind, has been life changing. It’s why I’m so enthusiastic about sharing this activity with anyone who may be struggling with their mental health.”

When you’re next feeling stressed, take time – with birds – to decompress. 

The Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, also known as forest bathing, involves spending time in a natural environment, focusing on sensory engagement to connect with nature. If you’ve ever been in a forest, listened to the birds, and watched the sunshine filtering through the leaves, this practice asserts that you’ve already participated in one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being.

While I’m thankful to my backyard mockingbird for having unexpectedly invited me to a much-appreciated mental health break, I’m striving like Mark to be more intentional in making time for my physical and mental health: to ease my stress each day with short breaks to glance or make my way outside, to forest bathe in a nearby greenspace, and make plans take part with others in nature. 

Might you pledge to do the same? 

Apps can be of aid.

If you choose to take technology along, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin and eBird apps Mark mentioned are two we recommend. 

Answer three simple questions about a bird you are trying to identify and Merlin will give you a list of possible matches. Sound ID listens to the birds around you and shows real-time suggestions for who’s singing.

Use eBird Mobile to search for recent reports of species nearby and find new birds you’ve always wanted to see. When you’re ready, this resource can help you to create and submit lists of your birding activity, and receive lists from leaders whose outings you join. As an added bonus, all the data from everyone’s lists becomes openly available for scientific research, education, and conservation. Feel proud about your contribution to community science. 

Connect with birds, nature – and others, with Wake Audubon. 

Wake Audubon hosts numerous bird outings each month, and we warmly invite you to join us no matter your birding ability. Everyone’s welcome, as you are; members and non-members; free of charge. We have binoculars to borrow. Leaders and participants are eager to help everyone sight and hear what can be found. 

Delight in a slow-paced sensory excursion with others, all together, present with nature. Find outings listed on Wake Audubon meetup and our website calendar

If seeking time in nature on your own, you might choose among these local birding sites.

Here’s to all of us realizing the mental and physical health benefits of managing our stress – during Stress Awareness Month, and every month. Nature and birds are ready to help. 


In addition to being a Certified Wildlife Biologist, Phil Doerr is retired Professor Emeritus in the NCSU Fisheries and Wildlife Program, former Wake Audubon board member and conservation chair, and current Wake Audubon Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging committee member instrumental in our Beginner Birders Program. 

Mark Simon welcomes you to connect with NAMI Wake County to learn more about their range of advocacy, education, awareness, and support programs.



National Stress Awareness Month. Link.

Feeling anxious? You’re not alone. NC ranks among ‘most stressed out’ states. Here’s why. Link

Stress statistics 2024: How common is stress and who’s most affected? Link.

How Bird Songs Improve Mental Health. Link

Bird and birdsong encounters improve mental health, study finds. Link.

Birding with Benefits: How Nature Improves our Mental Mindsets. Link.

The Surprising Health Benefits of Bird-Watching Link.