May is springtime at its best for wildlife and man

Barbara Hootman Columnist

Nature doesn’t get any better than May. The grass is green again, and the buds are unfurling in leaf and petal. The birds sing in full voice, daylight lingers and the world moves on with its springtime business.

Nature plays catch up in May, and everything is done in a hurry. Buds burst into blooms, and birds are busy building nests.

Fraser Magnolia trees are in bloom now. They are not only beautiful, but they also provide seeds and shelter for wildlife. Birds enjoy the seeds, and squirrels, opossums and bears join in the feast. The tree has a symbiotic relationship with beetles that pollinate the tree as it provides food for the insects.

Hummingbirds have been back for almost a month now and are settling into their routine of nectar-lapping from flowers and feeders. Females are busy constructing nests. There is no time to waste because nesting season is now.

The males and females are marked differently, which makes them easy to distinguish. The Ruby-throated male hummingbird has a black throat until he displays the gorget that exhibits red or orange throat feathers. The female and the juveniles have white throats.

Hummingbirds have special relationships with flowers. Red cardinal flowers are dependent on hummingbirds for pollination. As a hummingbird hovers before and laps nectar from a cardinal flower, it gets pollen on its head from the male stamen in the flower. When it flies to a female flower to lap nectar, the pollen sifts down to the female pistil of the flower. As the cardinal flower provides food for the hummingbird, the tiny bird helps the flower cross-fertilize. The bird has no sense of smell but does have keen eyesight.

Hummingbirds have long tongues that are hollow in the middle. They can easily slide the tongue in and out of a flower without opening the beak much. The tongue is long enough to make lapping nectar from flowers easy for the bird. The bird’s legs are short and not made for hopping or walking, but they can grip tightly. The birds not only lap nectar from flowers but eat many tiny insects along the way. They also consume a lot of tree sap as well as nectar. The Ruby-throated hummingbird is attracted to the color red.

Hummingbirds eat flies, weevils, small beetles, mosquitoes, aphids, flying ants, wasps and spiders. While wintering they survive from January through March on a diet of insects, since nothing is flowering to produce nectar. They have to eat twice their body weight in food every day, resulting in them visiting hundreds of flowers.

According to the National Audubon Society, hummingbirds are unique in the world of birds. Their metabolism compared to a human’s translates to an intake of about 155,000 calories per day that they must consume to survive. By adding nectar-rich plants and providing a hummingbird feeder in the yard, you can help provide the much-needed fuel for the tiny birds.

Hummingbirds sleep on the ends of small branches where predators cannot reach them easily. They nest from early April through July, and many produce three broods of young in a breeding season. Migration is depleting enough and then a busy nesting season follows. That leaves only about six weeks before they head for South America again. During that time they have to molt, grow new feathers, and put on weight for the long trip south.

The male and female hummingbirds do not form pair bonds or raise the young together. After mating the female takes over the responsibilities of nest-building and parenthood. The nest is a small, delicate cup-shaped one filled with soft down from ferns, milkweed and thistles - even young oak leaves. The female weaves the materials together with silk from spider webs or tent caterpillar webs. The outside of the nest is decorated with bits and pieces of moss and lichen. The completed nest is about the size of a walnut. Two to three white eggs about the size of peas are laid inside.

Baby hummingbirds grow rapidly and match their mother’s weight in only about 10 days. Mothers teach their young about specific flowers, tree sap, and feeders, after which they release the little ones to their own lives. Hummingbirds are solitary birds that do not roost or live in a group.

Research indicates that the Ruby-throated hummingbird has the least number of feathers of any bird, fewer than a 1,000 feathers.

From spring to fall, the Ruby-throated hummingbird can be found from southern Canada and south to Florida. It is the only hummingbird that nests east of the Mississippi River.

Keep out plenty of water for drinking and bathing, and take the bird feeders inside by late afternoon.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.