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.

 



Welcome to the month of spring!

i Feb 29, 2024 No Comments by

Authored by John A. Gerwin

As I write this, in late February, there are many trees in flower, along with the usual spate of Daffodils and a few other early herb arrivals.  Speaking of early, I watched a pair of Carolina wrens gathering large clumps of moss, and begin constructing a nest in a shrub in the backyard, on February 21. It seemed amazingly early.  Soon, we will be seeing additional “early birds”.

Normally, we expect to see the first returning Purple Martins to Wake County in early March. That said, our colleague Courtney Rousseau recently reported one from Holly Springs, on February 24. Things are happening earlier and earlier.  Considering history, we expect to get a few reports of Ruby-throated hummingbirds in North Carolina in late March. However, most of us in Wake County are accustomed to seeing our first of the year hummers in the first two weeks of April.  You can follow along at this website: https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=hummingbird-ruby-throated-first&year=2024

In most migratory bird species, males move through or arrive to a territory prior to the females. This makes sense in that males are racing to get back, get a prime piece of habitat, and establish a territory. Ruby-throats are similar in this regard.

In order to return to its breeding area, a given hummingbird will once again fatten up, the way it did when it was getting ready to head south. An individual that is not in migratory status or condition will weigh 3-4 grams. By the time it is ready to migrate it may weigh 6g. Note that in some cases, the bird has doubled its weight!

So, for most Ruby-throats, March is a month of gluttony as it were – they are still on the non-breeding grounds in a Mexican or a Central American locality. Many are also completing the body molt. Studies show that the head and throat (gorget) feathers will finish growing in by around mid-March.

Indeed, when you see your first males, try to assess the lower edge of the red gorget. A bird hatched in the previous year will often show a somewhat jagged edge whereas the older birds (greater than 1 year old) exhibit a more concise, straight-edge. It’s now always easy to tell with binoculars, but it can be with a digital photograph. That red gorget by the way will look black at certain angles and the way the light is hitting – but the edges are still edges.

Note that across the species broad range, we see quite a bit of variation from year to year in terms of “first seen” dates, and numbers visiting feeders. This is how nature is – there are various factors that affect the timing of movements of birds, and their subsequent distribution. And we don’t understand all of these factors.

As we are seeing more and more, plants are springing forth sooner in the season. Some birds are beginning to nest earlier than ever before. One way we discern these patterns is through the contributions of many amateur naturalists. So if you are so inclined, be sure to post your observations to your favorite website  – which may be eBird, or Journey North, or iNaturalist.  Here’s the map from 2023 for Ruby-throat observations submitted to Journey North. You can use the slider to see how things look by the week.

https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=hummingbird-ruby-throated-first&year=2023

And now that you know some hummers may show up as early as late March, you can plan to have your hummingbird feeders ready to go.  In the early spring, I prefer to start out with very small quantities of my homemade nectar. I know that visits to my feeders, in early April, we will few and far between. If I put out a feeder full of nectar, it usually gets moldy long before it is consumed. So I wait and see how many hummers seem to be around before I put out a larger quantity.

And remember – these little tykes consume many small arthropods. Indeed these make up about 50% of their diet.

Attached are some pictures to get your ready. I realize this only makes the month of March feel that much longer….. but this year we have Easter Weekend to help with the waiting….. maybe your Good Friday will be super good when you spot your first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of 2024.

Photo legends:

All photos by Bob Oberfelder

#1: Here is a “classic” view with full light hitting the gorget of a male Ruby-throat.

#2: This male might be a younger male – the edge of the gorget is slightly jagged. Note the darker area of the throat due to the angle of light, which in this case is not refracting to allow the red wavelengths.

#3: The color on the gorget of this individual appears a bit duller. The color is derived from the interaction of light waves and the feather structures and the way they overlap. Small changes in the structures (wear) or overlapping (puffed up or not)  can yield slightly different hues to the red.

#4: A classic “I think I have discovered a new species of hummingbird!”.  I have received many such emails and phone calls. Many folks do not realize that the gorget color is the result of structural features of the throat feathers, and not pigments. If the light does not hit and/or refract back in a Goldilocks manner (“just right”), the color appears dark, or black, as in this individual.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird – February

i Feb 1, 2024 No Comments by

Author: John A. Gerwin

February is a chilly, darker month. In the Piedmont of North Carolina, we experience some of the coldest nights, and least amount of daylight. The Ruby-throat is a Neotropical migrant, similar to the warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers and more that breed in NC. Most of “our” hummingbirds departed months ago. In NC, some leave as early as late July, others follow as summer turns to fall, and most are gone by late October. They make their way to Mexico or countries in Central America.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, back view with tail spread. Photo by Mike Dunn.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, female. Photo by Mike Dunn

Most Ruby-throats migrate south. However, not all of them do. For years, folks have reported wintering hummers in NC. And for some of those years, Susan Campbell and colleagues have caught, measured, photographed, tagged, and released many. They have found a mix of species, but many were Ruby-throats. We do not know why this happens (but we have some opinions all the same. We’ll see if we can get Susan to chime in one month).

During the winter months in Mexico/Central America, a Ruby-throat will be in places with a handful of other species. Keepers of bird lists currently list 340+ species of hummingbirds – all in the western hemisphere.  “Neotropics” means New World Tropics.  I’ve seen a few Ruby-throats on the west side of Nicaragua for example. Where the Ruby-throat can be found in Nicaragua, one might also find two dozen other species of hummingbirds. I have included pictures of a few of these other species.

In the non-breeding season, the Ruby-throat prefers habitat in areas that are drier overall, and often a bit scrubby (forest openings with second growth, forest edges, and some agricultural settings; among others). They will nectar at flowers we might grow in our gardens – various Salvia species for example. They continue to feed on minute arthropods for protein, and have an inordinate fondness for small spiders.

We know that hummingbirds exhibit some extreme life history behaviors and physiological adaptations. One of these concerns the molt cycle and there are aspects of the molt cycle we do not yet fully understand. Hummingbirds, as a group, rely on flight for feeding. Due to their small size, they are subject to extreme “stress” in order to maintain their high body temperature and functions. All to say, they do not molt quite like other birds. I can’t get into all the details here but will note that adults undergo a complete molt (body and flight feathers) after the breeding season. What’s really curious is that recent research has shown that some individuals undergo a molt in summer and apparently another during the winter.

In songbirds the post-breeding season molt can be completed in 6-8 weeks. In Ruby-throats, it is reported to be slower and much more protracted, when compared to the migrant warbler or thrush.. An interesting aside: in 1936 a researcher counted the number of body feathers on some Ruby-throats; he came up with 940.

At the species level then (Ruby-throat), the molt cycle runs from late summer to mid-winter. Individuals will do things differently, and as mentioned some may begin to molt body feathers in late July. These Ruby-throats then migrate while they are molting (or, if you prefer, molt while they are migrating). The question is, when does that July-molting bird complete the molt? No one knows for sure. One researcher did a fairly thorough study of the molt of Ruby-throats, assessing individuals in Mexico and Central America. His data showed that many Ruby-throats began a molt of the flight (wing/tail) feathers in November and completed it by the end of February. Many (most?) individual Ruby-throats complete the body molt in March, when the males’ new gorget feathers grow in.  Still, other aspects of the molt remain unknown. To understand precisely which birds are molting what/when/where, we will need a lot of marked birds that can be followed, month to month.

In February, Ruby-throats are sharing time/space with a large variety of tropical hummingbird species. In addition, they are preparing for the northward migration and some will indeed begin to migrate north during February. Many aspects of their migration also  remain unknown – but we do know that some will arrive in the southern U.S. by early March.

Here we provide a link to Cornell’s eBird website for the non-breeding range of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. This is a page where the user can zoom in and do other ‘animations’ (note also options on the right-hand side).

https://science.ebird.org/en/status-and-trends/species/rthhum/range-map?season=nonbreeding

Finally, I have included photos a few species of tropical hummingbirds in Nicaragua, which ranges overlap that of a given non-breeding Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Crowned Woodnymph – male

Crowned Woodnymph – female

Long-tailed Hermit

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Partnerships Help the Lights Out Program Expand

i Oct 16, 2023 No Comments by

Article by Connie Sanchez, Bird-friendly Buildings Program Manager, National Audubon

The night sky looks darker–and the future looks brighter–for birds flying through Raleigh, North Carolina. Starting this fall, Kane Realty Corporation, one of Raleigh’s biggest building managers, has committed to participating in the Wake Audubon chapter’s Lights Out Wake initiative. Going forward, during spring and fall migration Kane Realty will turn off unnecessary lights at its commercial buildings and ask its tenants to do the same. This will be crucial for the Wake Audubon chapter’s ongoing work making the city’s night skies safer for migrating birds, and the new collaboration shows how the Lights Out program is growing locally through national partnerships that create new connections on the ground.

“It is really significant that a commercial entity like Kane Realty recognizes that Lights Out will save birds’ lives and save money,” says Wake Audubon Society board member Phil Doerr. “This influence can help us bring more awareness and persuade more commercial interests to join the initiative.”

For volunteer Lena Gallitano, the partnership with Kane Realty is the biggest thing that’s happened to Lights Out Wake since the group launched the program about ten years ago. She says the inspiration for Lights Out Wake came during a walk with a colleague in 2014, when she saw a Common Yellowthroat trapped in a corner and disoriented by artificial light, and placed the tiny masked bird in a safe place to rest before releasing it in her backyard.

“I opened the container and the bird flew out, landed on a branch on one of my flowers, and turned around and looked at me like, ‘Thank you so much for helping me,’” she says.

Soon after, volunteers started surveying buildings during spring and fall migration to track the number of birds killed or injured by collisions. The data helped them determine buildings of concern in order to work with those building managers.

Volunteer Lena Gallitano holds a Common Yellowthroat killed by window collision in Raleigh. Photo:Kim Brand

The new collaboration with Kane Realty was made possible through Audubon’s ongoing work with KPMG LLP, a multinational company that provides audit, tax, and advisory services. Since 2021, KPMG has been promoting Lights Out to owners and managers across their U.S. offices. Audubon’s Lights Out program has been connecting those offices with Audubon chapter leaders and staff engaged in Lights Out efforts. This is already leading to more sustainable and meaningful partnerships that help KPMG offices save energy while saving birds at the same time.

“At KPMG, we believe in protecting our natural environment,” says KPMG Senior Director of Corporate Sustainability Darren McGann. “By engaging our building property managers in the Lights Out program, we’re taking concrete steps to reduce light pollution and protect migratory birds that play a vital role in our ecosystem. We’re proud to be part of this important initiative by the National Audubon Society, and we hope that our example can inspire others to join us in building a more sustainable and responsible future.”

Billions of night-flying migratory birds make their way through cities during spring and fall migration–and many of them are vulnerable to window collisions. Research indicates that in the United States alone, up to one billion birds die from collisions each year after becoming disoriented by bright artificial lights and skyglow. This month, Chicago saw a mass collision event where 1,000 songbirds collided with a single building in one night. To reduce bird-building collisions, the Audubon network has been working with property owners, building managers, and local governments to shut off, shield, or dim all unnecessary lighting during migration seasons.

Lights Out is gaining momentum, with more than 45 cities involved, programs in 18 of the top 20 most-dangerous metropolitan areas for migratory birds, and several state and regional efforts underway. In North Carolina, the city of Raleigh was the first to join the cause, and, with support from Audubon North Carolina, chapters have established programs with other towns and cities, including Matthews, Greensboro, Asheville, Cary, Winston-Salem, and Chapel Hill.

“Lights Out Wake underscores just how much power chapters have to make change in their communities,” says Ben Graham, engagement director at Audubon North Carolina. “They are on the ground, showing up year after year to reach out to local officials and building managers. We’re seeing the momentum really take off.”

The Lights Out Wake team in 2015. Photo: Courtesy of Lena Gallitano

For Doerr, Audubon chapters are “where residents and constituents can speak directly to local leaders and media to educate and advocate for Lights Out.” And according to Gallitano, the group has learned to be persistent with their message each migration season, build relationships with local elected officials, and communicate the value of Lights Out from many perspectives—from conservation to urban nature and energy savings.

“Every city around is trying to save energy,” she says.

Looking to make your home a more bird-friendly space? Wherever possible, you can help reduce collisions by:

  • Turning off exterior decorative lighting
  • Extinguishing pot and flood-lights
  • Turning off interior lighting, especially on higher stories
  • Down-shielding exterior lighting
  • Installing automatic motion sensors and controls
  • Assessing the quality and quantity of light needed, and avoiding over-lighting with newer, brighter technology

Original article posted on the National Audubon web site

The Future of American Goldfinches (and all other life forms) is in our hands!

i Oct 1, 2023 No Comments by

Authored by Phil Doerr

This photo of an American Goldfinch by Bob Oberfelder is a reminder that we must pull out all the stops to stem climate warming! July and August 2023 were the hottest months ever recorded on earth, and 2023 is on track to be hottest year ever. In a few years this stunning male American Goldfinch may no longer be able to nest successfully in North Carolina! The Summers may soon be too hot and dry to allow goldfinch chicks to survive, let alone thrive, as they should!

Male American Goldfinch photo by Bob Oberfelder.

To help out we should consider everything we do in the context of how much fossil fuel we use and what activities we engage in contribute to our carbon footprint, because if the climate change problem is not effectively resolved then all other problems become insignificant. Worried about drinking water and air quality, and the future of our retirement accounts, war and immigration pressures, extremes of heat waves, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, locust plagues, and every other catastrophe? We should be, because each of these and many other events will intensify and become more frequent as the planet warms.

As we do all we can to eliminate fossil fuels from the global economy there are meaningful steps to reduce our short term impacts on wildlife, including all things wild. We’ve looked at some of these options during our year with the American Goldfinch so we know how to provide for local goldfinches, and other wildlife!

But now what? –

We can personally commit to using less of everything, joining “buy Nothing” groups, recycling with purpose, and putting lots of pressure on our leaders, and the large corporations that profit from excess production and marketing of all things plastic.

But Wait, there’s more!

We can convert all or part of our lawn areas to native plant meadows and pollinator gardens (via Doug Tallamy’s Home Grown National Park!) and encourage neighbors to do the same.

We can preserve, (not cut down!) and advocate for every large oak tree in the landscape as they are migrating songbird magnets that support over 600 species of invertebrates birds need!

We can work with public parks (and other lands) managers to help control invasive exotics, be they plants or other life forms and to plant native species, always!

But Wait! – there’s still more!

We can refuse to buy or use bottled water, (carry a personal coffee/water mug/cup)

Encourage fast food outlets to switch to paper service for food/drinks, including straws.

Encourage travel and tourism hoteliers to stop providing single use toiletry containers.

And yes, there’s still more!!

We can convert to all things electric, and insist local utilities provide and encourage energy produced from renewables. And we’ve just scratched surface with our to do lists!

The Elephant in the room is us! We can change this trajectory with lots of work, but we can do it! I expect my 13 year old Australian born granddaughter to visit North Carolina at age 40 and see male American Goldfinches in their brilliant breeding attire! -Just as we do today!


As always, thank you for all you do for the birds.

Phil Doerr, Wake Audubon Board Member, and Volunteer ([email protected])


Please remember during this migration season (Sept 10-Nov 30) we turn off all outdoor lighting from 11pm to 6am to save migrating birds and make their long passages safer. This simple action saves, lives and money while reducing our carbon footprint! Check out “Birdcast.info” daily to keep track of nightly events, as viewed by the real time radar images from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

Ways to Help Vultures

i Nov 29, 2022 No Comments by
Authored by  Kyra Thurow Bartow.
Vultures are vital for our ecosystems. As many of them are obligate scavengers, vultures help to keep ecosystems clean of decaying matter. They also provide disease control as their extremely acidic stomachs as well as special enzymes can help destroy anthrax, tuberculosis, botulism, cholera, and rabies. Vulture populations throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia have plummeted by up to 99% since 1990, and vultures often encounter persecution throughout the entire world. Here are some ways you can help vultures:
1. Tell people about how important and cool vultures are!
2. Get a different perspective on vultures by following some social media accounts:
– Andy N. Condor (Andean Condor) from the Tracy Aviary
– George the Vulture (Turkey Vulture) from the American Eagle Foundation
– Bash the Vulture (Black Vulture) from the American Eagle Foundation
3. Support Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facilities. These organizations are required to have conservation actions in order to be accredited under the AZA umbrella. One such project is called AZA SAFE (Saving Animals from Extinction), with a focus on African Vultures. They have partnered with the Denver Zoo, NC Zoo, VulPro, Kalahari Research and Conservation, and the Peregrine Fund in order to have people on the ground in Africa looking into how to save their vultures. Visit these websites for more information:
– AZA SAFE African Vultures
– Raptor TAG
4. If you are a hunter or know a hunter, have them switch to copper bullets rather than lead bullets. Better for people and vultures!
5. Celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day! This occurs on the first Saturday of September each year.

6. Tell your local government about your commitment to vultures and vulture-safe practices.

Close-up of Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture photo by Bartow

Close-up of Black Vulture

Black Vulture photo by Bartow