July 27, 2014

How to Raise a Hummingbird

How to Raise a Hummingbird

One hot afternoon in April I noticed a hummingbird hanging out on the neighbor's balcony. It was trying to get some nectar from the plants and the hummingbird feeder (which may have been empty) and seemed to be having a really difficult time. This is probably why I noticed in the first place. The flying was erratic and she kept bumping into the plants. Finally she just rested in the pot for a few minutes.

I kept an eye on her in case she flew to where I could see her better, and after a little bit she flew right into the Juniper bushes in front of our apartment. Well, flying isn't really accurate… she kind of collapsed. I went out to check on things and she was just laying there, delicately supported by the wispy juniper leaves, wings all spread and eyes closed. Hummingbirds have to constantly eat - their metabolisms are so fast that the mere act of surviving depends on their ability to eat non-stop (which is why they can hover - no time to stop and eat, gotta keep on the move, even if hovering uses a ridiculous amount of energy). 

I figured she'd be easy to catch in this state, so I reached out and cupped my hand around her body. She was so light and so imperceptible to the touch that I was practically squeezing her before I realized I actually had a her. She barely opened her eyes and didn't struggle at all - she was one tired bird.

Taking care of a hummingbird

I took her inside and The Boyfriend brought me a box to put her in. We got her set up in our room (where we could keep the dog and especially the cat out) with a box, a shirt draped over most of the top, some paper towels, and a bowl of water. We have a bunch of medication syringes from the vet, so I filled one with some cool water and sugar (in retrospect, I didn't do any measuring whatsoever with the sugar, which was probably not smart). She was not interested in the bowl of water and ended up sitting in it, so I got in there with the syringe. To my surprise she actually drank from it!

Hand feeding a hummingbird

In between feeding, I researched hummingbirds to figure out how much she needed to eat and when it might be safe to put her back outside (or if it was better to try and find an organization to take her). After the first syringe full of sugar water she perked up. Her eyes opened, I could see the ruby color on her throat feathers, and she flitted a bit and she didn't seem injured at all.

All of a sudden she jumped into the air and started zooming around the room! Of course she couldn't understand why she was trapped, why she couldn't flee out the window, and fortunately her itty bitty feet (talons? what are they called on a small bird?) were too small to grip on the ceiling fan. After a few minutes of flying she tired out enough that I could catch her again. Once she was back in the box I gave her another two syringes full of sugar water. Since she seemed OK and that she had maybe just gotten too hot and hadn't eaten, I put the box on our porch where she would be free to fly away. After a few minutes she hopped up onto the edge of the box and then took flight. 

I didn't see her after that - it was impossible to tell if any hummingbird I saw was the same one or not, and there are quite a few in the neighborhood. But it was cooler when she flew away and she was stocked up on sugar so I was sure she was fine, wherever she was. 

Hummingbird nest

A couple days later I was working from home and this hummingbird kept landing on a plant hook where we've strung lights. I just thought it was cool at first, and maybe it was the same bird back to say hey. But then it was seriously every 15-20 minutes - the bird would not leave the plant hook alone. At the end of the day I left to walk the dog, and when I came back I saw the bird fly away, and the reason she had been coming to that spot so frequently. She built a nest! Well, she started. The base of the nest was wrapped around the plant hook and was supported by the light plug wrapped around it. Over the next week or two she kept building until she had a nest of paper, twigs, and spider webs about the size of a golf ball and open at the top. 

Hummingbird nest

Soon enough the little bird was spending almost all of her time on the nest, leaving for food and to gather items for the finishing touches to the nest. I was (and still am, because why not?) convinced it was the same bird I fed, and I did some hummingbird research trying to figure out how long we'd have our little feathered guests. She was supposed to lay eggs a couple weeks after mating (which I assume was the time she spent building her nest), then they'd hatch about 3 weeks after that, then they'd be fed for another month or so until they were ready to fledge. 

Hummingbird eggs in a nest

The location of the nest was particularly lucky for us. Everything I read about hummingbirds said the nests were really difficult to spot, but the nest was directly in front of our kitchen window, so anytime we were in the kitchen or at the table we could watch her. I got the hang of her habits pretty quickly (a bird on eggs doesn't do that much), so when she suddenly started getting fidgety we knew the eggs must have hatched. It just so happened that her behavior changed on Mother's Day! How cute that our little bird friend became a mom on Mother's Day.

The Boyfriend and I decided that she needed a name. After the sugar water feedings, we kept referencing Men In Black, because the farmer, Edgar, wanted sugar water when the alien took over his body. So Edgar it was!

Newly hatched hummingbirds in a nest

Edgar became very fidgety indeed. Hummingbirds will scout for food every 15-20 minutes when they have mouths to feed, so now our little Edgar had two fast metabolisms to support in addition to her own. She would need help for this, so I bought a feeder and put it on one of the other plant hooks on the patio. She took a while to notice it, but once she did she used it as a quick source of energy to go and find real food for her babies.

Baby hummingbirds

After a week or so of knowing the eggs had hatched but seeing nothing, two tiny little beaks peaked out from the rim of the nest, gaped wide for food and calling very loudly. Edgar had a distinctive chirp she used to announce her presence, and The Boyfriend and I picked it up and mimicked it to each other. It was pretty cool that she announced herself like that, and gave us a second to try and get a shot. We also watched for when she left and got up on a chair to peek inside the nest, only it was built so close to the roof of the patio that we couldn't see in. She also got really mad when we made it obvious we were trying to get close. She bird yelled at us for taking pictures through the kitchen window!

Hummingbird feeding her babies

This kept up for a while, until we noticed one of the baby hummingbirds was big enough to be visible at all times out of the top of the nest. Unfortunately, this also meant that there was only one baby hummingbird… if one was big enough to fill the nest, the other must not have made it.

Baby hummingbird in a nest

It's really hard to see (I didn't notice until I got this on my larger computer screen), but the dead baby is still in the nest, to the left side. It's still very small, so it must have not even made it a week. The bright side is the baby that is alive is doing very well being the center of Edgar's attention.

Big baby hummingbird

Grow he did! Soon enough Edgar couldn't fit in the nest anymore. She would sit on the wire to feed her fat little baby or try to crouch between the top of the nest and the roof, but couldn't feed that way. She also became an absentee mother - she was gone more often than not, and although she still did a very good job making sure her only baby had plenty of food, she seemed to be kind of over the whole mom thing. But when your house is only big enough to hold one of you (and barely that), you got to go elsewhere. We also discovered one of her nearby hiding places between our apartment and our neighbors where there was a stick from the juniper bushes that was perfectly hummingbird sized. She watched us from there when we came and went - it became a game to us to see if we could get into our front door without disturbing her. 

It was also around this time we suddenly noticed the massive amounts of hummingbird poop everywhere. How a single bird of that size can make the mess he did is beyond me. Everywhere in a three foot radius was affected: our kitchen window was caked in it, the patio was littered with droppings, and it even got on the roof of the patio, inches from the nest (how that happened I'll never know - do they flick it like monkeys?). We finally saw him poop one day and discovered how they get the radius: they stand up, stick their butts out, and projectile shit. Bird poo also tends to be liquid and solid together, so it gets all over the place. So disgusting. We're going to need a pressure washer to clean the patio. And when we finally cleaned the kitchen window it was like we added skylight to the kitchen - it was that much brighter. And it was that gross.

Fledgeling baby hummingbird

One day we came home and found the baby sitting on the edge of the nest! He had been fidgety for a few days: flapping his wings super fast like hummingbirds do, readjusting a bunch, trying to preen, and generally trying to be a bird while still stuck in a nest. Seems like Edgar and her baby were over the whole thing. Baby bird sat there pretty much the entire day and most of the next day. Edgar still came to feed him, and sat next to him on the wire to do so.

Fledgeling hummingbird

The tuft of white hair under the tail feathers became a distinguishing feature. Now that mom and baby were the about the same size we looked for ways to tell them apart. First, the baby had all those fuzzy white hairs that Edgar didn't have. Second, the baby was noticeably fatter than Edgar. In fact, Edgar seemed to have gotten quite thin with all that flying around and dumping her energy into the baby.

Hummingbird about to leave the nest

Over the next day or so he became more adventurous, moving further and further down the wire. When we had our front door open we watched him, and we're pretty sure he watched us inside just as much.

Hummingbird by a hummingbird feeder

Eventually he made his way all the way across the wire on the patio to the bird feeder and decided to chill there. Edgar didn't seem too happy about this change. She flew back to the nest to feed him, always using her distinctive announcement chirp, and when he wasn't there she made what I can only assume are angry chirps telling him to get his ass back to the nest. 

Mom and baby hummingbird

 But he didn't, so she would relent, and a few feedings happened at the bird feeder. 

Mom feeding baby hummingbird

Feeding baby hummingbird

At least this appeared to be more of a comfortable position for Edgar. Hummingbird beaks are really long, and she had to get her own long beak inside his long beak to feed him, so the extra elevation was sure to be welcome. Plus, free food right there! Not that she used it to feed her baby, ever. Which is fine. Sugar water is basically the McDonalds of hummingbird food. There's so much more nutrition in actual nectar from flowers. 

Hummingbird in flight

And then one day it happened! Little baby hummingbird took flight. We were so lucky to be home when it happened - he'd been flapping his wings and walking the wire and getting his nerve up for a few days. Also, The Boyfriend happens to be an excellent photographer - who else can capture a baby hummingbird's first flight in such clarity? He looked right at the camera.

Baby hummingbird takes first flight

Baby bird flew along the patio between us and the neighbors, hugging the roof and even landing on  the stucco at one point. He also tried to land on the railing on the stairs, but his little feet were much too small (and the metal was too slippery), and he finally landed in some bushes to rest.

Cat watching birds from window

This was the day Chloe had been waiting for. Good thing she's an inside cat. (Not that she would know what to do with a bird if she caught one…) She had been getting on the counter to watch from the kitchen window (tell tale cat hairs everywhere, and she helped herself to munching on my succulents on the sill), being sly enough to only do it when we weren't home. But I can't blame her too much - she almost never gets to see birds.

It took the baby several more days to really get the hang of flying, and all the while Edgar was still bringing him food. Once he had his strength up and could maneuver around like his mom, they flew around the building together, checking out the other patios.

We thought that would be the end of our hummingbird experience. But the baby just kept on coming back! We knew it was him because of his white feathers and he was still quite fat (we'd taken to saying "fat fat fat" whenever he was around). We finally just decided to name him Fat. He figured out the hummingbird feeder one day, and that became a new activity. I swear he also likes to come back just to sit on the wire and peek inside the windows. He grew up seeing two humans and a dog, and hearing our sounds, every day. 

Hummingbird in garden

It's nice to see him doing so well. And extra nice that we have the opportunity to catch up with the baby as frequently as we do. We planted a small garden and I used sticks to prop up the tomato plants, and now he'll come just to sit on a stick and survey his little territory. 

We still have the task of cleaning off the patio (it's not as caked as it was, but I still don't walk barefoot near the nest), taking the nest down (the dead baby is still in there), and cleaning the poop off the plant hook and the stucco. But that is highly unpleasant. 

We also don't know if hummingbirds use their nests from year to year, or if Edgar will return here. She still comes around for the hummingbird feeder, though it's infrequent now that she's not tied to her baby anymore. We also don't know if her baby is a boy or a girl (we call him a boy for some reason), but if it's a girl maybe she'll nest here next year.

But that's how you raise a hummingbird. Rescue an adult around nesting time, provide a safe place, and she'll see that's the perfect spot to build a nest and allow you the opportunity to watch a hummingbird grow up.