Bird Watcher's General Store

Hummingbirds Like Garden Sprinklers
06/11/10


Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve read that hummingbirds are one of our most pugnacious birds and I believe it. In my yard there is a constant battle of birds fighting over the right to eat at my feeder. Lately, however, one hummer has pushed its aggressiveness to an extreme. Every time I turn on my garden sprinkler, this crazy bird attacks it by diving at the sprinkler head. Of course, the spraying water drives off the hummer, but it simply backs off and attacks it again. What is wrong with this wacky bird?

– Ray, Dennisport (Dennis Port), MA

I hate this, Ray,

What is with Cape Cod and all its little “ports”? It’s bad enough that our small towns are made even smaller when we divide them into bite-sized sub-towns. For example, in your case, the Town of Dennis consists of plain Dennis plus South Dennis, West Dennis, East Dennis and something called “Dennis Highlands,” which must be the Scottish section. But the real annoying one is the “port” portion of Dennis. No one can seem to agree on how it should be written. You - and the Town of Dennis - claim that Dennisport is one word, but the US Postal Service, Google Maps and my spell checker declare that Dennis Port is two words, and I don’t know which to believe. Most people probably think, “who cares?” and I agree, but somewhere out there is someone who really does care and if I write it the wrong way, I’m going to hear about it. I always do. Always.

You were right when you called hummingbirds “pugnacious.” They can be ultra aggressive birds, like a combination of a rattlesnake, a badger and Simon Cowell. They will readily drive other hummingbirds away from a food source, whether they are hungry or not. “Share and share alike” is not part of the hummingbird’s creed. But attacking a garden sprinkler seems crazy, even by hummingbird standards. However, I don’t think your bird has lost its mind. I think your bird is very smart and here is why.

Unlike most other birds, hummingbirds don’t like to take baths. They would rather take a nice shower, and I couldn’t agree with them more. It totally creeps me out when I hear someone say, “I’m going to take a long, hot bath.” Talk about gross. I don’t want my face, hands and the rest of me floating around in the same water that my feet are in. Even my shoes hate being near my feet. The hummingbirds’ issue with baths is not so much about their feet, but about their legs, or lack there of to be more specific.

Even though hummingbirds are masters of the air, they aren’t well equipped to handle things on land. Their legs extremely are short, perhaps not as short as New York’s Mayor Bloomberg’s legs, but they are still very short. Most water sources are too deep for them to stand in. To make up for their teeny legs, and to take advantage of their superb flying skills, hummingbirds have learned how to bathe while on the wing. Mist from waterfalls and splashing streams, dew dripping from trees and yard sprinklers all make the perfect showers for hummers. After zipping in and out of the spray a few times, they are good to go. The whole process takes about a minute, or five minutes if they use a luffa.

Once showered, hummers go someplace quiet to preen their feathers. Keeping feathers in good shape is critical for all birds, but especially for hummers. If they can’t fly, they can’t move. Their ability to walk is almost nonexistent and without thumbs they can’t even hitchhike. It’s flying or nothing for hummingbirds. The first thing a hummer does after a shower is shake off any excess water, much like a dog does, only hummingbirds smell a lot better than a wet dog. The next step is to groom each one of its feathers. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird has over 900 individual feathers to attend to and it can somehow keep track of which feather it has cleaned and which ones needs attention. This capability amazes me because I can’t even get my socks to match.

Another impressive thing about a hummingbird’s preening skills is that it does it all without a brush, comb or blow dryer. The main tool it uses is its ridiculously long beak. The bird is somehow nimble enough to preen most of its feathers with that sword-like beak. It gleans out tiny mites and bits of dirt and then adds a dab of “product” to its feathers, which is oil that it obtains from a gland at the base of the tail. Also during this process the bird will “zip up” its feathers. Tiny hooks hold the components of a feather together and they occasionally have to be re-hooked in order for the feather to function as one unit. An unzipped feather doesn’t work very well, not to mention being embarrassing for the bird.

Hummingbirds are amazing creatures, Ray. There are over 320 different species of hummers in the world and every one of them has impeccable hygiene. If a hummer allows itself to become dirty and smelly, it won’t survive in the wild for very long. Plus, if it becomes too smelly its friends will start to think it’s a wet dog, or worse, my feet. They don’t want that.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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