Saturday, March 30, 2013

Creating a Hummingbird Habitat

Hummingbird and columbine
(Josh Haas, Auduban Guides)
According to Journey North's map, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are pretty far  south, held up by cold weather--but they'll be in the Chicago region soon. I wrote the following short piece for a start-up magazine that never got going.
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In summer, I love to sit outside and watch the resident hummer. She might perch in the pagoda dogwood and preen, disappear, reappear by the scarlet runner beans, hover at the feeder, then zip up to the honey locust tree across the alley. It seems quite miraculous.

Hummers didn’t always frequent my backyard. Not one had been seen on my block for decades when, in 2008, my next door neighbor Muriel and I decided to try attracting them. We already had native-plant-based gardens; attracting hummers meant learning their needs and then adding hummer-specific elements. Muriel put out two feeders and we both planted tubular red flowers, which suit hummers’ long bills. To our delight, two ruby-throats showed up that August.

We were were practicing what evolutionary biologist Michael Rosenzweig calls “reconciliation ecology” in his book Win-win Ecology. Reconciliation ecology is “the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play.” Further inspired by citizen-science hummingbird project, we gave informational fliers to our neighbors. Several planted appropriate flowers and vines and one or two put up feeders. Our whole block has become hummingbird habitat. 

About ruby-throated hummingbirds
There are approximately 350 species of hummingbird, a bird native only to the Americas; only one species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, breeds in the upper Midwest.  Ruby-throats winter in southern Mexico and Central America and fly north in the spring, reaching the Chicago area in late April to early May. A remarkable part of their migration is their non-stop, eighteen-hour, approximately 500-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico. They follow the same routes and tend to return to the same places, one reason maintaining habitat is very important.  They find suitable habitats by sight, which is why clumps of bright red flowers as well as feeders help attract them. 
Incubating (Dorothy Edgington, Journey North)

Ruby-throats often arrive too early for many flowers and survive by drinking sap and eating trapped insects at the holes yellow-bellied sapsuckers have drilled in trees. The females construct their tiny, walnut-sized nests on branches about twenty feet up. Once they’ve mated, the females lay two pea-sized eggs and raise their young alone. A mating cycle lasts about 45 days, and there can be two clutches a season. Their job done, males sometimes start back south as soon as July; females follow somewhat later and juveniles later still, up to the first frost.

Hummers can live up to twelve years, though the average is three to five years. To fuel their speedy metabolisms, ruby-throats must consume up to half their bodyweight in nectar each day, making use of at least thirty species of native plants as well as many garden flowers. At least nineteen native plants such as jewelweeds and columbines depend on hummers for pollination. Because nectar has no protein, small, soft-bodied insects and spiders make up one fourth of their diet. 

How to attract hummingbirds
Sometimes people will put up a feeder and then get disappointed when hummers don’t show up. But, like humans who can’t survive only on sports drinks,  hummers need more than sugar-water alone. If you develop a generally bird and insect pollinator-friendly garden habitat that includes hummingbird-specific features, you’ll probably have more success than planning only for hummingbirds. If you get your neighbors involved, you’ll strengthen the whole neighborhood ecosystem. That’s reconciliation ecology in action. 

What ruby-throats need
  • Places to perch and nest. Like many other species of backyard birds, hummers prefer layered edge habitats, with trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses and a water source. When planting choose at least a few hummingbird-attracting varieties. Hummers also find hanging baskets attractive. Plant flowers in groups of at least three or more of the same kind, and plan for a long bloom period by planting early, mid and late-blooming varieties of flowers.
  • Tubular red flowers. Native species often offer more nectar than nursery hybrids and single blossoms offer easier nectar access than double blossoms. See list here. Scented and composite flowers, while good for insects, aren’t as useful to hummers. Non-tubular flowers often don’t have as much nectar. Very diverse flower areas are best—the more species of flowers, and thus pollinators, the better!
  • Nest-building materials. Hummers use fuzzy plants such as cinnamon fern, pussy willow and “weeds” like thistle and dandelions for nests. Hummers use lichen from tree bark stuck on with spider silk to camouflage nests.
  • Feeder. Put out a hummingbird feeder in spring and keep it filled with sugar water until fall. Use a solution of one part sugar to four parts water which has been boiled for no more than two minutes. Clean and refill the feeder frequently (every two days in hot weather). Saucer-shaped feeders are easier to clean. Making extra sugar water solution to store in the fridge and keeping two feeders in rotation reduces work. There's no need to hang out more than one feeder: sugar water is not nutritious, so plantings should provide the most nectar.
  • No chemicals. It’s best not to use any insecticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers in your yard (this includes chemical lawn care). A healthy garden ecosystem starts with living soil, nourished by organic material, that supports a complex, dynamic web of life: beautiful in the elegant way it naturally functions, as well as the way it looks.

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    Hummingbird Facts and Nature Rants
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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Backyard Phenology

From Susan Clotfelter, The Denver Post
One day snow all over the ground, the next day muddy grass sprinkled with snowdrops shining in the morning gloom. Rain. A solitary robin appears, nearly black among the flowers and flies to a tree branch where it sits, silhouetted among the leafless tangle. This is phenology. I know by these signs that it's time, past time, to start paying attention, serious attention to what's going on outside, that is, to turn from observing shapes, colors and weather--those clouds, these tan grasses drooping along the path, that maple's shape--to keeping a sharp lookout for stirrings, returns, expansions. Time to, every day, go check the area where the bumblebees tend to emerge, notice how far the buds on trees and bushes have expanded, see what perennials are turning green at the base--and so on and so forth. Time to pay attention to details. There's a lot to do, it's a big job, this noticing, keeping track, celebrating. And then recording in my gardening notebook.

In my backyard, the snowdrops have always told me when to start my phenological year. When the first ones appear is when I begin making notes on plants, birds and pollinating insects, scanty at first, working up to a sustained crescendo and then diminishing with cooler temperatures and greater darkness. When I began doing this, at first just with flowers, the early snow drops generally bloomed in mid to late February. Looking through my notebook, I see I was pretty haphazard: some years I didn't get past June in my efforts, as though only spring-blooming flowers had appeared. In 2009, only the snowdrops are recorded--March 1. What happened that year that pulled me away from the garden? Only in the last several years have I gotten more comprehensive, as my understanding of garden interactions has grown; but I despair of ever being truly methodical or scientific.  All this time I've been paying attention, though writing not much down.

 For two reasons I've gotten more serious about record-keeping. One is coming to a greater understanding of Aldo Leopold and his emphasis on phenological notation. Another is that I signed up to observe for the USA National Phenology Network, whose mission includes tracking phenology in order to monitor the impacts of climate change. Thousands of people nationwide are contributing their observations to USA-NPN's online program, Nature's Notebook; these data are used in turn by scientists researching climate change effects. Our observations form an invaluable resource that would be unobtainable any other way. I like to think the records of my completely unremarkable lilac bushes are contributing to the common good.

Back to the snowdrops. Usually in my backyard they've bloomed in mid to late February. Last year, the no-winter year, they appeared earlier--my note says February 1. This year, even though we've had more of a winter with a nearly average amount of snow, the beginnings were mild. The snowdrops started shining under the pagoda dogwood in mid-January--the earliest I've seen them there. What else is happening? I'd better get outside and look.

Related Post:
Something New to Do with Your Lilacs

Friday, March 1, 2013

In Praise of Miserable Weather

Any person who has lived in the Chicago region for any length of time knows miserable weather. The temperature hovers at around 32 degrees, a damp wind angles right in your face the mix of snow/sleet/rain/ice pellets descending from the flat, dull-aluminum-colored sky, and slushy snow slumps on the ground. Our winters are famous for this. Residents moan and complain. People migrate south to escape. Not for us the pristine whiteness, the invigorating crispness of the northern or mountain winter.

I've missed this weather.

Last winter and the early part of this one I've waited and worried, sulked, even; but now, at last, we've got it--all of the above plus the added bonus of occurring when the snowdrops are blooming and it should, as meteorologists inform us, be heading towards the 40s.

It's the kind of weather I imagine they were having in Japan, the old Japan of wooden and paper houses and no central heat when a traveler, I think American, in a story I once heard, complained of the cold. He was wishing for sturdy walls and a roaring fire and wondering why on occasion they opened the doors to view the snow--and an old woman replied, "it's winter. You're supposed to be cold." She was perhaps wondering why this person was so ignorant as to not understand that one is supposed to endure the cold, yet appreciate the aesthetics of miserable weather.

So I go out for snow walks. Yesterday I found myself by the pond at Thatcher woods in a landscape of black, white and gray. I stood in the quiet, looking around as a fresh breeze bearing ghostly precipitation came off the not-quite-frozen water, slushy with rotten snow. I heard a woodpecker, then saw it fly to a snaggy oak, where it commenced its bobbing vertical walk.

Basho, the great Japanese poet, wrote many haiku about winter. Here is one (translated by Robert Hass):

Winter solitude--
in a world of one color,
the sound of wind


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Related Posts:
Meteorological Winter
Gardeners' Work