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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Little Birds of the New World | 07-11-2013
Santa Clarita CA
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jul 11, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugI grew up in Paris, and while it is a beautiful city with gorgeous monuments and the best croissants ever, there is something seriously missing: hummingbirds.

You do not know how lucky you were, growing up, to be able to see hummingbirds year-around in Southern California. They are what is called a “New World bird,” as they do not exist in Europe.

Conversely, there are many birds you can see in Europe that do not exist in the United States. Many are from the passerine family. Those are the small songbirds you see at different times of the year in your backyard.

When the Pilgrims came to America, they did not know any of the birds around them, but they missed the little passerines from back home. Occasionally they would see a bird that reminded them of a bird such as the European robin, a bird that was dear to their hearts. It is a small, pretty, vivacious bird; it can be easily tamed to eat crumbs from your plate if you eat outside, and it has a melodious song. It has a cheeky attitude and is now the national bird of the United Kingdom.

European robin

European robin

The folklore surrounding it goes back thousands of years. I will spare you the lengthy legend of how it got its red breast while standing on the cross, comforting Jesus. This bird is so much a part of the culture that when the Pilgrims reached the cold shores of Massachusetts, the first red-breasted bird they saw, they called a robin, even though it was twice the size of the little bird back home.

I am not a Pilgrim, but I still remember the moment of wonder when I saw my first hummingbird. Strangely enough, it was at Disneyland, the so-called happiest place on earth. Did that sighting play a role in our decision to move to California? I am not sure, but it certainly was an important moment for me.

The most common hummingbird we see in Santa Clarita is the Anna’s hummingbird.  It is an all-year resident and is the largest hummingbird species.

They are known as hummingbirds because of the sound created by their beating wings, which sometimes sounds like bees or other insects.

Annas have a green back; the throat is a brilliant rose red, sometimes with a darker red patch in the center of the throat. They are abundant around groves of flowering eucalyptus. They are the only birds that can fly backwards.

Anna's hummingbird - the local variety.

Anna’s hummingbird – the local variety.

Hummingbirds drink nectar from inside flowers. Their beaks are usually long and straight, but in some species, the beak is slightly curved up or down, or short and thick as an adaptation to the available flowers. They also prey on small insects and spiders. They feed in many small meals each day, and they consume up to 12 times their body weight in nectar daily. You generally see them when they’re on the move, but they spend 75 percent to 80 percent of their time sitting and digesting.

When in flight, they have the highest metabolism of all animals to support the rapid beating of their wings, so that high proportion of resting time is very necessary. Otherwise they would have to eat continuously.

When the temperature gets colder, or at night, they can drop their body temperature, breathing and heartbeat and go into a sort of torpor. They conserve a lot of energy that way, and it helps them spend less time feeding.

For the longest time, ornithologists disagreed on the cause of the loud, high-pitched sound heard at the bottom of the male’s display dive. New scientific experiments have proven it comes from the outer tail feathers. How did they find out?  Simple enough: When missing the outer tail feathers, the hummingbird cannot make the sound, and if the feathers are present, they reproduce the sound.

Many species of hummingbirds can produce sounds with their wings or tails. It is always an interesting sound to hear, and often you hear the sound before you see the little bird hovering above your head.

Most hummingbirds migrate to northern Mexico for the winter, but Anna’s hummingbird does not. It is a common resident from inland California to Southern Arizona and all the way north to southwestern, coastal British Columbia.

hummer071013cSo far as we know, the male hummingbird does not take any part in nesting. He takes care of reproduction, then he is gone. The female builds a small nest using spider silk to bind the nesting material and to secure the nest to a structure. Because the silk of the spider can expand, the nest can grow bigger as the young birds inside grow.

I think it’s a fantastic idea to have a bed that grows with the size of your kids.

The female lays two white eggs. Incubation lasts from 14 to 23 days, depending on the species.

Many hummingbirds have colorful plumage with gorgeous shades.  Where does that color come from?  Not from pigmentation on the feather itself, but from prism-like cells within the top layers of the feather. You need the light to hit the bird at a certain angle, and suddenly you see those fiery reds or iridescent greens on a bird that seemed plain just a second earlier. Because they are constantly in motion, you don’t have to wait too long for the show.

Aztecs wore hummingbird talismans made from part of real hummingbirds. They were prized for producing in the wearer sexual potency, energy, vigor and skill at arms and warfare.

One of their gods was frequently depicted as a hummingbird.  One of the Nazca Lines (geoglyphs in the Nazca desert) depicts a hummingbird.

Hummingbirds are fiercely territorial and defend their own feeding ground mercilessly by attacking other hummingbirds that try to feed on “their” flowers, so it makes sense to use such a little bird as a symbol for warfare.

Old world, New World, birds from the old country, birds from America – so many interesting facts to discover.  I wish you many pleasant and satisfying hours this the summer, observing hummingbirds.  We’re lucky to have them all around us.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

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1 Comment

  1. Tonya Waller says:

    What a wonderful article! Thank you! I moved to California from Arkansas 2 years ago, feeling a bit lonely and out of place at first. I was blessed to discover the little hummers and started planting flowers they enjoy and erecting 3 feeders. What joy they have brought me!

    Love your articles, thank you!


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