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The Hummingbird Bill and Other Stuff
August 18, 2008

Welcome new readers to our "Gardening for Wildlife" family.

Stick around as you learn a bit about me and hopefully you learn a few things about gardening and wildlife.

Summer continues to march on, as August is more than half gone.

It has been very dry in my part of Michigan and temperatures this past week were cool and below normal.

Cool drier air settled in and there was a hint of fall seems to be in the air.

However, Sunday was in the mid 80's and today promises to be warmer with of humidity.

Sights and sounds of August are everywhere, from insects and gardens to bird activity or lack of.

The House wrens fledged last week Monday afternoon.

The nest-box has been cleaned and put back up.

As the wrens move on, we are now blessed with a family of Tufted titmice at out peanut feeder.

Five tufted gray birds hanging from the feeder or hanging out making a high pitched whistle.

The fledglings or juveniles are a bit smaller, have a small tuft and lack some of the coloration af the adults.

A couple of fledged American goldfinches have found the sunflowers and let their parent know they want to be fed.

I enjoy watching near adult sized birds begging for food.

The Red-tail hawks continue to hang around, I hear them more than I see them as the juvenile hawk expands her territory.

Many of you have inquired about the lack of Robins all of a sudden.

They are lacking in my yard too and the garden center is almost void of robins as well.

Baby robins have fledged and are feeding on their own now.

With this, diets change more to seasonal fruits and a few insects. Plus, in most locations worms have gone deeper in the drier soil.

However, I keep my yard and gardens well watered so there are plenty of worms. Yet, because of the change in diet, worms aren't on the main menu this time of year.

Robins take off to open wooded areas especially near water, where there is plenty for them to eat, drink and a place to bathe.

There are plenty of places to roost and offer protection for the lose flocks that are now forming.

Robins are a species of bird that goes where the food is. This also includes migration when they may not move at all or travel as the need fits.

I know it all sounds strange, but there isn't room to explain it all in this letter.

Keet and Ziggy the poodle pup have been under foot more than usual since we returned from our short vacation.

It's nice to be loved and wanted, but tripping over a fur child isn't my idea of a good time.

Because the humidity has been low here in SW. Michigan this month, many fungus haven't been a big issue so far.

If you have high humidities and temperatures that vary more than 20 degrees from day and nighttime, you may have fungus issues right now. Many fungus thrive when temperatures fluctuate like that.

You can't get rid of what is there, but you can arrest it from spreading by using fungicides.

We often don't think about fungus until we see it or have it in our gardens, by then it is almost to late.

The best way to take care of fungus is to prevent it.

To prevent fungus, you must do some preventive treating before you ever see a mildew, spot or wrinkle.

Proper planting provides air circulation and ground watering will minimize the spread of fungus. Air circulation keeps foliage dry and proper watering minimizes fungal spores from splashing all over the place (airborne is bad enough).

Just when I think I have the woodchucks somewhat under control, another batch of bunnies has proven to be rough on certain plants this time of year.

Other than August being dry, we've been blessed with rain and I do water as well.

The lush foliage and moist conditions have been favorable for toads as my yard has plenty of young toads as well as a few big ones.

I haven't seen a snake in my yard in years so that also makes my yard a toad haven.

We have a couple of favorites or specials to share with you from readers.

Also is the main topic, "hummingbird bills" (you're gonna like this or at least say "I didn't know that").

Onward and upward.


Jean lives in northwest Georgia, 50 miles from Atlanta.

Here is a little something that Jean has to share about her wildlife habitat and why she does her "Gardening for Wildlife".

"The best part of my garden is seeing all the birds enjoy what I have worked hard to create for them. I have lived here almost 6 years.

It was a junk yard.

Now it is paradise.

To see the birds accept my flower heads, or the trees I have planted is a thrill I just can't put into words.

My mind just says "They like it, they like it! I have so far counted over 100 different species of birds that have visited here.

This year I have a lone squirrel that gets into my feeders and rabbits that ate many of my sunflower seedlings.

I have had a huge rat snake invade my Bluebird house and eat all 4 eggs (moved the bb house & put up carpet tack on post hope that works) now have 4 new bb babies. "

I watched a Black Widow Spider capture a Japanese Beetle in her web and after injecting it with her venom wrap it with her web.

Well, I wanted to create a natural habitat, I guess I am getting it and loving it all. The so call good & bad.

Thanks for sharing Jean, you do have a wildlife habitat going.

Wildlife does contain the good, the bad and the ugly. However, they are all part of life's cycle and we get to enjoy them all if we know how and where to look.

The carpet tack board works if enough is used and properly located, I guarantee it.

Nancy Ann is from Oregon and she wants to share her backyard with you.

"I live in the Klamath Basin, 35 miles southeast of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

We are on the side of a small hill at 4250' elevation. We farm 33 acres of our hundred and the remainder of the land has been left natural - - Sagebrush, Juniper and various grasses, wild flowers and lots of critters, both four leggers and winged.

We are a mid latitude high desert and quite dry. Sometimes we have lots of snow in the winter and sometimes there is very little.

We have been here, at our house, for 30 years, and I truly love this area. We have Mule Deer, Antelope, Jack Rabbits, Mountain Cottontails, various ground squirrels, Cougars, Bobcats, several species of snakes including Rattlers, Kings and the Klamath Basin Garter Snake.

But my favorite of all are the birds.

This year we have not had the numbers are variety of birds we usually have. This seems to be true of most of the basin. However, those we have are a delight.

We ground feed here, on the lawn, and have not only a cement bird bath close, but also several shallow ponds around the edge of the lawn.

Only occasionally do we have problems with the Red Tailed Hawks that spend most of their time in our fields trying to catch the many Belding Ground Squirrels. In 20 years of feeding, I have only seen one bird caught by a hawk, and that was inside a feeder.

I didn't think we were going to get ANY Hummingbirds this year.

I put one feeder out, as usual, when the hard freezes ended in late May. I used a small one and only half filled it.

I faithfully changed the 'nectar' often and had just about given up, when one lone Rufous Hummingbird showed up one evening in mid July - - at least a month late.

Finally, we had a family - - two adults and a little one. Several days after that we had two families.

Then suddenly we had swarms of the delightful little fliers - - so many we could not count them.

We now have three feeders up and I have to fill them daily and some days more than once.

On the Oregon Coast, most of the Hummingbirds are year around residents. But here in the high desert, they will leave, depending on the night temperatures, in mid September to mid October.

I always leave the feeders up for two weeks after we see the last visitor. We have had some stragglers from the North come and feed on their way south."

Thanks NA.

Nancy Ann has been a faithful reader and cyber friend for sometime now.

Not everyone thinks of High desert when you hear about Oregon and Nancy Ann is quick to remind me and share stories on a regular basis about her "Wild Kingdom".

She tells me of her California quial and sends me cyber pictures of her habitat.

Here I am stuck in the suburbs while you folks live the good (wild)life.

Thank you for sharing ladies.

As you can see, it doesn't take much to share your favorite yard, garden, bird or wildlife with us.

Even living in an apartment, condo or whatever, you can still share your wildlife stories or hanging baskets with us.

Be sure to give a first name, city or region and state/province.

Hummingbird Bills

A hummingbird's bill serves many functions.

During mating season, hummingbirds use their bills when squabbling amongst one another to claim territory.

Then when it comes time to build a nest, female hummers use their bill to weave a tiny nest.

Paste it together with spider webs and camouflage it with lichen and other material they collect.

And most importantly, the every day, use to obtain food.

The size and shape of a hummingbird's bill varies from species to species.

For example, the Purple-backed thornbill has a bill of less than 1.3 cm while the Sword-billed hummingbird has a bill that reaches up to 10 cm (almost as long as its entire body).

The shape of a hummingbird's bill also vary among species.

Some bills are straight, some up-turned, and others curve downward.

Often, the shape of the hummingbird's bill mirrors the shape of the flowers on which it feeds.

Deep, tube-shaped flowers require long bills to reach the nectar inside.

Flat, open-faced flowers are easily accessed with shorter bills.

This isn't a fast rule, however.

A hummer bill is designed to enter flower like snapdragons that are closed to most insects.

Hummingbirds also hunt insects and do it quite well.

Some folks believe a hummingbird bill and tongue sucks nectar much like a butterfly. Butterflies and moths have a straw like instrument called a probocis that does suck nectar.

Hummingbirds lick up to 15 times a second using a barbed, forked tongue.

Because a hummingbird's bill overlaps (the top overlaps the bottom portion of the bill), there is no waste of valuable nectar.

Hummingbird bills, like all bird bills, are made of hard protein called keratin.

Keratin is also found in feathers, and human nails.

Flexible Bills

Now here is where it gets really interesting.

In 2004 a pair of scientists from the University of Connecticut wondered how these long thin bills can catch insects that are needed for protein in their high energy diet.

"Margaret Rubega" and "Gregor Yanega" set out to find out how a long skinny bill catches insects.

Most birds that are insectivores have short, wide beaks. The hummingbird study - part of the Ph.D. research of graduate student Gregor Yanega, began with this question:

"How do these nectar-feeding birds catch insects at all?" Yanega asked.

Using high-speed video to study three species of hummingbirds, the researchers observed that the birds bend their lower beak downward by up to 20 degrees.

The movement effectively opens the beak wider, and increases the bird's ability to catch an insect in its mouth rather than at the tip of its beak.

The pair found that hummingbirds also flex the lower jaw laterally at the same time, to widen the area at the base of the bill.

Observe the photos (All credit is given to Gregor Yanega for the stunning pictures).

AMAZING, aren't they?

"Being able to bend the lower jaw vertically and laterally seems to allow a bird with narrowly set jaws to have an effectively larger mouth," says Yanega.

A second surprise was discovered as well ................

By clearing and staining some specimens to reveal bone and cartilage - that the lower beak doesn't have a joint that would facilitate the bending.

A few other fly-catching birds have a joint in the lower jaw, which flexes sideways to make the jaw wider; but none are known to flex their beaks in two dimensions like hummingbirds.

Although nectar is a good energy source, it lacks many nutrients, and hummingbirds still needed protein.

A female hummer needs to be efficient at catching food as she spends three to four weeks feeding hungry and growing nestlings.

Pinching insects with a pair of tweezers wont get the job done, it was also discovered that insects are caught in the back of the mouth or bill as opposed to being snatched by the front or point of the bill.

Observations show that hummers have a difficult time getting the bugs from front to back when they manage to snag one with the front of the bill.

Even these marvelous creatures have an Achilles heal huh?

Finding the unexpected

The researchers' discovery was possible through the use of high-speed video, which runs at 500 frames per second and can capture movements that are too rapid for the unaided eye to see.

To conduct the study, Yanega caught several ruby-throated hummingbirds and kept them in a special flight cage stocked with fruit flies.

The birds were released after experimental work was complete.

In addition to studying ruby-throated hummingbirds in Connecticut, Yanega collected data on two other species in Arizona: blue-throated and magnificent hummingbirds.

All three species have long straight bills.

I have personally watched to methods of insect hunting by Ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Sometimes they hover over flowers like Zinnias and snag insects and other times I can watch them perching, fly out and snag an insect and go back to their perch.

Dedicated work from these two young scientists, make discoveries possible.

Even with today's technology, we are still discovering and learning about God's wondrous world around us.


Well, its time to fly for now.

Before I go, here is your thought for the week.

"Life is not a brief candle. It is a splendid torch that I want to make burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations."

Bernard Shaw

Life is a splendid torch......................

Life is often what we make of it.

Do you want sour grapes or do you smile at the world?

Say thank you to our Creator and smile a huge smile (splendid torch).

Share your smiles with everyone you meet this week.

Friends and strangers alike.

If nothing else, you will confuse them and that is worth another smile.

Until next time.

"Treat the earth well:

It was not given to you by your parents,

It was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our

Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb

Your friend indeed,

Ron Patterson

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Gardening For Wildlife.

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