Tom Ross: I can’t get no respect
July 14, 2007
Editor’s note: Tom Ross is on vacation. This column originally appeared in the Aug. 13, 2005, Steamboat Today.
Carl Hurst and his friends have a sugar habit. It’s a really big sugar habit.
Hurst, who works on the Hinsdale County road crew estimates he purchases about 500 pounds of refined sugar each summer. And no, Hurst does not have a second job running a commercial bakery. He does, however, have a real thing for hummingbirds.
When I stumbled into Hurst earlier this month at the Backcountry Navigator shop in Lake City, I came to realize he might be just the person I had been looking for.
I’m going to blurt it out – I get no respect from hummingbirds. I have a perfectly nice hummingbird feeder stocked with fresh nectar, but the little birds, although they buzz over my house hundreds of times a day, turn up their beaks at my offerings.
It’s beginning to give me a complex the size of Rodney Dangerfield.
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Once in a while, a solitary bird shows up at my feeder, tentatively pokes his needle-like beak into its fake flower blossom, gives me a dirty look, and buzzes off. Other times, the hummers taunt me by performing aerobatics in my backyard. On many occasions, I’ve observed a hummingbird zooming straight skyward for 30 feet or more before dropping into a dive that he pulls out of just above the ground. Then he thumbs his beak at me, and laughing, streaks off to dine at the neighbors’ feeding stations.
I’m tired of taking – stuff – from a bird no bigger than my thumb.
When I first set eyes on Hurst, he had just handed a DVD to the proprietor of Backcountry Navigator. The store is devoted to selling maps and books to help visitors explore the San Juan Mountain Range.
When the store’s proprietor popped the DVD into the drive on his computer, I watched with mouth agape as scores of hummingbirds attacked a series of a half-dozen feeders. The little birds were as thick as mosquitoes on Buffalo Pass on the Fourth of July.
“How does he do that?” I wondered out loud.
As one might expect from a man who goes through 5 to 6 gallons of nectar every day, Hurst had all of the answers for me.
First, he dismissed the notion that the stunt pilot in my back yard was mocking me. The steep ascents and dives are part of the hummingbird’s mating dance, Hurst said.
“So, you’re telling me this hummingbird has a crush on me?”
The level gaze on Hurst’s face didn’t change.
“Tell me why hummingbirds don’t like my feeder and don’t sugarcoat the truth,” I said to Hurst.
It turns out I was lacking in even a basic understanding of hummingbird behavior. So none of this will come as a surprise to people who already successfully attract hummingbirds to their gardens.
I was overlooking the fact that I have a bully named Rufus on my block. Rufus hummingbirds, recognizable by the brown coloration on their backs, Hurst explained, are very aggressive in their feeding habits and will dominate a single feeder.
Rufus is so selfish he will chase the more common broad-tailed hummingbirds away from a feeder, even when he’s had his fill of sugar water.
My problem was I had a solitary feeder in my yard. My occasional visitor was Rufus. And the broad-tails that were flitting about my yard were too timid to stand up to him.
The solution is simply to keep several feeders stocked with nectar and group them on the same side of the house, Hurst said. Rufus can’t guard more than one feeder at a time, and before long, he predicted, I would have Rufus and broad-tails feeding within close proximity of one another.
I’ve learned some more things about hummingbirds this week. During their annual migration to Central America, they will fly 525 miles nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. They can consume their weight in sugar water every day. And during those dive-bombing mating displays, they reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.
Hummingbird feeders are often on sale this time of year as retailers prepare to switch over to fall merchandise. Horton assures me I have until Sept. 15 to invest in more feeders and make peace with Rufus before he migrates. After that, he will be in Belize to spend the winter sipping nectar from tropical flowers.
All I really want is a little respect.
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