Volume 14, Issue 36 ~ September 7 - September 13, 2006


Fueling up for Autumn’s Migration

My yard offers a lesson in miniature on competition for desirable resources

by Carol Russell

As the dog days of summer arc into the shortening days of fall, a green-tinged flurry of activity darts back and forth outside my kitchen bay window. Hummingbirds are preparing for their migration from Chesapeake shores southward to Central America. The glittering Lilliputians whirr to and fro extracting food from insects, flowers and feeders.

Long before the goldfinches pluck seeds from the sunflowers, I see hummers poised in front of the big, bowing flowerheads, challenging bees and butterflies for a chance at a sweet drink.

This morning, a tiny Mr. I-Own-the-Hummingbird-Feeders is parked atop the double-arched pole where two feeders hang. A ruby-throated male, he perches there as smugly as a bull surveys a field of alfalfa. His head turns from side to side, and though he may not be feeding at the moment, he grants no other flyer a sip from his domain.

When I first put out sugar water a few years ago, I fancied the photos of hummer groups clustered around flower holes on the feeder packages. My husband and I had seen swarms of the tiny creatures visiting a feeder in the Canadian Rockies one summer. So I bought one, and only one, feeder that inaugural year.

What a naïve view I had of ruby-throated hummer dynamics.

Here’s the drama that unfolded: One hummingbird alighted on the encircling ring to feed. Another hummer zipped along, and the two flew into a dive-bombing spiral until one was driven away. The victor returned, pleased as punch (though slightly ruffled), and continued his meal.

This territorial drama played out over and over, and my vision of cheerful gatherings of amiable diners faded. For a hummingbird, getting liquid lunch is no jovial tea party. It’s more like an angry tennis match played in fast forward.

This year I wizened up. I purchased three more feeders and extra poles. I planted them around the yard at what I hoped were sufficient distances from each other. These little feather puffs can fly all the way down to Panama; how could I not have foreseen that charging across an acre to fend off hungry interlopers is nothing to the deceptively tough critters looking to monopolize the sucrose supply?

Now our yard’s traffic looks like a cross between the Daytona Speedway and Reagan National Airport on a Friday afternoon.

Don’t you realize how much energy you’re burning by harassing each other? There’s enough food for everyone! Can’t you all just get along? I want to cry out.

Eventually, I learned that placing feeders out of sight of each other relieved the competition. If you see a yard with red-covered dishes hanging behind trees and shrubs, you may have stumbled upon a social experiment aimed at bypassing fruitless feeding frenzies.

My yard has become an experiment to persuade the tiny territoralists to eat rather than attack. They haven’t much time left in the honey pots of Chesapeake Country. By mid-month, they’ll be gone, off on an energy-consuming migration of thousands of miles.

Carol Russell, a member of Bayhill Writers Group, writes from Huntington. This is her second reflection for Bay Weekly, following Field of Dreams (Vol xiv, No 9: March 2).

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