Our Desert Hummingbirds: On a Wing and a Dare

On March 2, 2023, we woke to the appearance of a tiny visitor, just outside our front door. This girl has set up nesting duties in our Ocotillo in a pot near our front entrance. The Trochilidae family includes the world’s smallest birds, with the most brilliant iridescent colors, the fastest wingbeats, and the most amazing ability to fly up, down, sideways, and backwards. They spend their days hovering at flowers to sip nectar, feeding almost constantly to supply the sugar necessary to maintain their racing metabolism. Thanks to wings that flap around 50 times per second, you can often hear a buzzing hum when they zip on by.

On March 7, an egg was laid. We learned that only the mother hummingbird builds the nest, sits on eggs and rears the young. Mothers can lay 1-2 eggs several times during the breeding season. Did you know Hummingbirds aren’t vegetarian? They don’t live exclusively off flower nectar. Like us, these birds need protein and amino acids not present in flower nectar. So where do they get their nutrition? They hunt insects and can even eat while in flight. The smaller the hummingbird, the faster its wings beat. Sturdy tail feathers are used like rudders to make hairpin turns. 

Two days later, there were two eggs in the tiny nest. The mother controls the temperature while brooding therefore ensuring both eggs will hatch together, although laid apart. Hummers are diurnal. Meaning most are awake during the day and sleep at night. Male Costa’s Hummingbirds are not a problem to identify, but the females are very similar to female Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Costa’s are quite a bit smaller and have a rounded, hunched over look, and their bills are short and straight. We think ours is a Costa’s. What is your best guess?

The mother hummingbird sat diligently on the nest. She would only leave the nest occasionally but stayed nearby. Experts believe a mother hummingbird will leave her nest upwards to 200 times a day to gather food, at 20 minute intervals. Her favorite perch was the tip of another tall ocotillo. Unlike some other popular backyard birds, hummingbirds do not nest in birdhouses. In general, hummingbird nests only measure a little over one inch in diameter and their eggs about the size of coffee beans.

Mama was well camouflaged. Can you find her? Found in hot, dry habitats like the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, the species is an important pollinator of desert plants and cacti. The hummers migrate and nest in February or March, when desert flowers are most abundant and heat has not yet peaked. Hummers can eat more than twice their body weight daily, visiting a hundred or more flowers to do so, and like bees, possess an excellent memory about the exact location and sweetness of flowers and feeders. Similar to woodpeckers, hummingbirds have tongues that wrap around their skulls and back toward a nostril when retracted.

We worried about roving neighborhood cats and road runners but Mama Hummingbird remained safe in her nest. Hummingbird nests are tiny architectural gems.  Like most birds, hummingbirds start with twigs and other bits of plants, using leaves for a base. However, hummingbirds will also use feathers and fur to camouflage their nests and to make them softer. The secret to a successful hummingbird nest, however, is spider silk. Hummingbirds use the silk to create the nest itself which is elastic in nature and expands as hummingbird babies grow. The silk is also stronger than steel in relation to its thickness and makes it the best material to anchor the nest and ensure that it endures any type of rigorous movement caused by winds.

On March 13, Mama Hummingbird was asleep snug in the nest in our ocotillo keeping her two eggs nice and warm during a cold snap. Hummingbirds have a special adaptation called Torpor, a semi hibernation-like state which allows the body temperature to reduce and the heart rate to slow to 50 beats per minute. Normal heartbeat is 500 to 900 beats per minute. Slowing down their metabolism in this way allows these birds to survive the cold nights.

Same Mama bird, same nest, different day. March 15, 2023. You’ve probably been out walking in the Sonoran Desert and heard the high pitched ssssiiiiiiiiiuu song of a Costa’s Hummingbirdnot realizing it was coming from this tiny male bird with a big iridescent purple mustache. Humming birds are not romantic birds and do not mate for life. In fact, the male bird leaves the female soon after mating and goes away in search of its next mating partner. The female bird, on its part, never allows a male around its nest once she has laid the eggs.

Happy Birthday, baby hummers!!  By March 25th, the babies began to hatch. Mother hummingbirds incubate their eggs anywhere from 11 up to 18 days before the eggs hatch. The mothers keep their eggs at a balmy 96 degrees during incubation. When the little hummers hatch they weigh only 0.62 grams and are just 1 inch long. This is less than the weight of a dime.

Did you know that a baby hummingbird, although blind at birth, recognizes the wind from its mother’s fluttering wings upon her return to the nest? It is a signal to open up big and wide for a treat from Mama. All hummingbird’s feet are only made for perching. They cannot walk or hop.

March 30. The siblings were growing fast. The dynamic duo have no downy feathers, just yellow straw-like strands down the middle of their back. Their eyes are closed and their bodies are black. After 10 days they develop pin feathers that look like porcupine quills. 

I’m not a baby hummer. I’m an ocotillo. At around two weeks old, baby hummers start exercising their wings to prepare for their initial flights. Once they are ready to fly, they leave the nest, a process called fledging.

April 8. This Easter weekend’s baby Costa’s hummer update! The 13-day old kids have taken up so much of the nest by now that at night Mama sleeps nearby.

April 10. Our baby hummers have feathers! They’ll be testing their new wings soon. They hatched on March 25.

April 11. Still in the nest, but Baby Huey looks to be getting ready to fly the coop in the next day or two. At about three weeks old, they have all their feathers and while their tail feathers are still short, they can fly. It’s at about this time when they leave the nest and become fledglings. 

April 12. Once they fly away, fledglings won’t return to the nest again. For a few more days, hummingbird mothers continue nurturing their young. They remain close, leading them to the best food sources. When they leave the nest, the chicks are considerably larger than their mothers: they may weigh 4.5 grams, while Mom is down to only 2.5 g after the stress of raising her young.

I know we sound like their parents but aren’t they just the cutest little things?

There are 14 species of hummingbirds found in California. Year-round natives are Anna’s, Allen’s and Calliope. The seasonal ones include Black-chinned, Rufous, Costas, Green-violetears and Violet-crowned. Others are outside of their normal geographic range when found in California but are occasionally spotted. Some hummingbirds will stay around all year long if there is adequate food, or merely migrate to the nearest woodland habitat to overwinter before returning.

April 15. Only one baby hummer left in the nest! Mama is around but no more Baby Huey sightings. We predict this little guy we nicknamed Pee Wee will fly the coop tomorrow. We’re going to miss them.

April 16. Sunday update. We decided to stay home on hummer watch this Coachella Fest weekend so we won’t miss anything and now our last little baby hummer Pee Wee is getting ready to fly away! Mama hummer is nearby chirping him on.

April 16. Pee Wee flew away a minute ago and is now in our Palo Verde testing his new wings. You can feel how excited he is. He’s really blossomed since his sibling flew away two days ago, giving him more room and food to grow but he’s still half the size of Baby Huey. Mama got a little frantic when she returned to the empty nest for a second but soon honed in on his peeps and happily reunited.

April 18. We thought we were done with the fledgling hummer reports, but to our utter amazement we saw our little Mama still feeding her babies in our oleander today! That’s right, Baby Huey and Pee Wee have reunited and Mama has found them both. What a happy family reunion it must’ve been. Baby Huey flew the coop 4 days ago, and the littler one left last Saturday, two days ago. Pardon our out-of-focus shot, they’re not as easy to sneak up on as they used to be. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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