Monday, July 30, 2012

Our Tiny Garden Terrors

A few weeks ago, my family and I woke up on what we thought would be a normal day. My mom was making breakfast, I was reading a book, my dad was trimming our trees, and my sister was playing with her dog. After a little while, my dad came inside and told us to come outside to see something. I thought it was going to be something uninteresting at first, but I went along anyway. He took us to the big Ficus tree in our front yard, and what do you know, we found out we had some guests.

We were very surprised! The little teacup nest was right among the branches carefully concealed. The little protruding beaks from the nest told us we were dealing with Hummingbirds, or members of the Trochilidae family, if you want to be scientific about it. We've had Mourning Doves and Sparrows nest in the eaves of our house before, but Hummingbirds were a first for us.

The nest they were in was woven out of many different kinds of materials. The mother probably wove it out of spiderwebs, animal hair, lichen, and other materials. The two hatchings probably came into the world a few days apart, as suggested by the size difference between the two (one was definitely bigger than the other). They were hidden underneath the branches and surrounded by leaves on all sides, making it hard for any predators to get to them.  The mother did very well protecting them.

Speaking of the mother, my dad said he had seen a hummingbird flying around the tree a few days earlier, and said it had a brown stomach and a green back. Not much to go by, but we thought it was an Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna), as they're common where I live and we'd seen them before feeding on our neighbor's Hummingbird feeder.

My mom, however, was mostly worried about their safety. While trimming the trees, my dad had accidentally exposed a bit of the nest from underneath, which could've made them a potential target for predators. The Mourning Doves we had before had their babies eaten by a small gang of crows, and she was also worried since our new neighbor's cat kept on coming into our driveway. In fact, in some places pet cats are decimating to local bird species, but that's a different story altogether.

I was also concerned, so we decided to help the mother out and watch the youngsters grow, which was very fast. We swear that on some days the hatchlings almost doubled in size within 24 hours, and  after a few days they were getting too big for the nest.

This was when they started to look more like Anna's Hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are fed on a mixture of nectar from different kinds of flowers and crushed up insects (since nectar alone doesn't provide enough protein for growth). We hadn't seen the mother very much.  We caught a few glimpses of her flying by, but we never saw her on or near the nest. However, by the health and growth rate of the hatchlings, we knew they were being fed well, probably when we weren't looking. Smart mom, she didn't want to give them away.

In most bird species, however, both the mother and father would help raise offspring. Hummingbirds are different in that only the mom takes care of the young. This is likely due to both the father's interest in mating with other Hummingbirds and the fact that Hummingbirds are more territorial than other birds.

WHAT? Cute little innocent birds are territorial? That doesn't sound right...

I normally get that remark when talking to people about hummingbirds, as you typically see them traveling around the countryside, flitting from garden to garden.  Hummingbirds are very territorial, especially the brightly colored males (as you can see below). A few species are less territorial than others, but many won't tolerate one another and will lay claim to areas of land. Sometimes up to 30 houses and gardens can be a single male's territory, and when you look at these animal's diets, it's easy to see why.
Male Anna's Hummingbird
Female Anna's Hummingbird

Nectar is very precious to Hummingbirds, and their high energy diet is the only thing that allows them to do what no other bird can: hover, and fly backwards. This is because Hummingbirds are the only birds able to flap their wings in a figure 8, and they flap in that pattern more then 80 times per second, both of which allows for more control in flight. Only Hummingbirds can access this mode of flight because of the energy provided from nectar. Without nectar, they won't have enough energy to fly, and if they can't fly, they will die. That's why their their food is worth fighting for, and why they create territories to protect it. If you have ever seen two Hummingbirds at the same feeder, they'll normally fight over it, making loud noises, dive bombing each other, and even clawing each other if it goes on too long.

Our baby birds were likely to become powerful garden terrorists in the future, that is, if they'd survive past fledgling, which is the time they are at their most vulnerable. One day, we came outside to see that one of our little birds was starting to exit the nest (sorry I don't have a pic). My sister and mom were panicking that it might fall, but it made it back in rather easily. We came back later and found that the two hatchlings were gone. My sister was sad that we couldn't find them, and we were somewhat worried that, since they vanished, they might have been eaten by the neighbor's cat.

Later that day, however, when I was preparing for dinner I heard a loud metallic chirp outside my window where the Ficus tree grows. It was loud and sounded like metal scraping against metal. My sister said she had been hearing it all day, and thought it was my Dad's rock tumbler at work (he's always up to something). He then came in and told us he had finished tumbling his stones yesterday. We were confused for awhile about the source of the sound, but when I looked out the window, voila!, there one was of the youngsters.

The youngster was perched on a branch outside the window, looking in at us. We watched him ruffle his feathers up a few times when we saw the mother come down to feed him (I don't have any pictures sadly). Before she fed it, however, the youngster made a loud metallic noise that sounded like scratching metal. Two mysteries solved.

It turns, and I only learned this later, baby Anna's Hummingbirds are unique in the fact that they don't chirp while in the nest to ask for food. This is thought to be a protective behavior to not reveal the location of the nest when the young are vulnerable. However, when the young leave the nest to learn how to fly, as our baby did, they begin chirping so the mother can locate them, as they aren't yet accomplished fliers, nor can they feed themselves. It's a neat survival trick, and I'm surprised it's unique to Anna's.

We went outside later to find the other one in another part of the Ficus tree. Both were safe, and the mom was hovering nearby. Since it was very windy that night, my sister was worried the two could be blown out of the tree. Luckily the next morning, although we couldn't find them very easily, we could hear them chirping just fine.

It was around the time when I was writing my Sciurumimus post when we found them again, this time perched outside my bedroom window being fed and given flying lessons by their mom.

The two were staring in at me while I was writing the post. We were happy to see them both together again, something we hadn't seen since they were in the nest, but it got even better. One time, the mother joined the two in a little bit of family bonding:

The two stayed up their for 2 days, but on the third, we had seen that they had moved to the telephone lines along our street, venturing back to the Ficus tree only occasionally. They obviously flew there, but all we ever saw in the air was their mother, and a few sparrows near our neighbor's bird feeder. That, however, was the last we saw of them. We haven't seen the family since, and it's likely that they moved on to bigger gardens and greener bushes for the young to start families of their own. I have to admit I'm sad that I probably won't see them again, or even know if they are still alive, but there is hope. Apparently, some hummingbirds like to use the same nesting tree year after year, so I'm hoping to see another brood in the future.

So there you have it... my summer surprise. Anything interesting happen to you? Feel free to share in the coments below. My next post is hopefully going to be on Mesozoic Plants, as I've been reading an article about some new research into it. Either that or it's going to be on the feeding adaptations and skulls of Sauropod dinosaur. After that, I'm hoping that I'll be able to publish a post I've had a request to write a for awhile by Mr. Gorsh (just so he knows, I've been working on it). I haven't had the proper notes and guides to help me out with it until now.

Untill next time, stay sharp!

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