The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Naturally Texas
Black-chinned Hummingbirds Return
Terry Maxwell, March 30, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

The Hopi, who regard them as Kachina spirits, call them "Tocha", and they have returned to the Concho Valley as well as most of western Texas by now. They are, of course, hummingbirds. In particular, out here on the western Edwards Plateau and Rolling Plains, they are black-chinned hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri).

I spoke recently with Joann Brown of the famous Hummer House in Christoval, and there the black-chins were back by about March 8. Cindy Burkhalter, whose family feeds great numbers of hummers along Dove Creek reports that the hummers returned about two weeks back.

My assessment is that you may now be a little behind the time if you don't already have your hummingbird feeders out. It may well be that you'll attract them to your feeders whenever you get them out, but it is now, when black-chins are returning, that they establish territories. You're more likely to get them early and keep them for several months if your feeders are out soon.

The black-chinned hummingbird seems to be the forgotten one in the national scope of hummingbird passion. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummer that nests in the eastern half of our continent, so it deservedly gets most of the press and affection over that way.

Rare, mostly tropical species - admittedly spectacular birds - draw oohs and aahs in the Texas Hill Country and Trans-Pecos Mountains. There, reports of such exotically-named feathered gems as green-breasted mangos, green violet-ears, Lucifer hummingbirds, and violet-crowned hummingbirds draw the attention of enthusiasts.

But I would beg your indulgence now to consider our black-chinned hummingbird. I assure you that its familiarity should not lead to indifference.

Those individuals returning now to the San Angelo region are coming from western Mexico - mostly from the states of Colima, Jalisco, Michoacan, Morelos, Guanajuato, and Nayarit - where they have been since late last fall. Oddly enough, some black-chins winter along the Gulf Coast fromTexas east to the Florida panhandle. This U.S. wintering has been a recently-reported phenomenon (beginning mostly in the 1980s), but whether those birds previously overlooked or are newly wintering there is unknown.

Males typically arrive in spring a week or two earlier and depart earlier after breeding than do females. These migrant black-chins, particularly in fall migration, tend to feed more on insects than flower nectar, unless they encounter sugar water feeders put out by people. And that brings up their diet, a more involved subject than you might have thought.

Black-chinned hummingbirds eat flower nectar and sugar water from feeders (no surprise) but also insects and spiders caught out of the air, picked out of tubular flowers, and gleaned from foliage and spider webs. When you think about it, it only makes sense. Nectar provides energy, but not enough of the lipids and proteins needed by all animals.

Hummingbirds don't actually suck nectar out of a flower or feeder. Their long tongue is grooved. Nectar moves into the tongue grooves by capillary action. The tongue is then pulled back into the bill and nectar squeezed out of it as it's again pushed out the nearly closed bill. The appearance really is a rapid series of licks.

Also, hummingbirds don't necessarily prefer red or orange over other colors, but many plants that have evolved hummingbird-pollinated flowers have those colors because insects are not much attracted to them. Hummingbirds learn that such colored flowers have good stores of nectar and for that reason search them out.

You have undoubtedly noticed your black-chins defending a feeder against other hummers of the same or different species. Artificial feeder defense declines when large numbers of hummers are using the same feeder, but during the middle of the summer females hotly defend feeders against all others that would use the feeder. Males will defend agains other males, but they typically back away from female aggression.

I have one more black-chinned habit to tell you of. No pair bond is formed between males and females. For sure males, but perhaps also females, of this species are promiscuous. Females build the nest, incubate the two eggs, and raise the young, while males are feeding and off chasing other females. This is unusual among birds as a whole since the class exhibits the greatest amount of monogamy among vertebrates.

This could be the most abundant hummingbird in Texas. That, I think however, is no reason for it to have any less appeal. Those Allen's and calliope hummers are good for spicing up a regional bird list, but it's the black-chinned that's there for you to enjoy every day from spring to fall.

Get those feeders up.


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At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in North Central Texas and I had heard that the males defend territory but I have several females at my backyard feeders this year and one of them fiercely chases all others away. I hadn't known this was common until I ready your information.

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