THE WILD SIDE
By Maria de Bruyn
The title of this month’s column might lead older readers to expect a treatise about old cars being used for an afternoon outing. But we’re not discussing four-wheel drive vehicles and old VW Beetles. Instead, we’re focusing on hummingbirds, other birds and the insects they need to survive.
Hummingbirds live only in the Western Hemisphere and about half of their species live around the equator. Here in the Piedmont, we usually only see ruby-throated hummingbirds who breed here in the spring and summer. Very occasionally, we may see another type of hummer who has wandered into our area during migration, like the rufous hummingbird seen above.
Male and female hummers usually don’t keep company with one another. After mating, they go their separate ways, looking for nectar and those bugs that make up to 80% of their diet.
The females build beautiful, tiny nests that are held together with spider web and covered with lichens. The nests are flexible and expand as the babies grow.
The tiny hummers have enormous energy needs to maintain their 1200-beats-per-minute heart rates. They feed five to eight times per hour, consuming daily about half their body weight in nutrients from nectar and a wide variety of insects including spiders, ants, aphids, beetles, gnats, mosquitoes and wasps.
Many other birds, such as Carolina wrens and Carolina chickadees, also need bugs and caterpillars, especially when they’re feeding their babies. Nestlings need them to ensure they get the food components needed for growth.
When we humans decide that we don’t like having insects around, we may be making life quite difficult for our avian companions. Many pest control companies try to persuade people to spray their entire yards to eradicate all insect life — and that is devastating for the birds.
In addition, wholesale poisoning of bugs means that butterflies, moths, bees, and other pollinators are deprived of food and life. Did you know that 75% of our planet’s flowers and 35% of our food crops need pollinators to reproduce? If you have a garden for vegetables and/or beautification, killing off all the bugs will harm its ability to thrive.
There are, of course, insects that we don’t care to have around — ticks, mosquitoes and chiggers are three examples. But we can use insect repellants and other means such as mosquito dunks in ponds and standing water for control. Please consider doing that instead of having your house and yard sprayed with insecticides.
I hope you are enjoying the adult and baby birds who are flying around. And learning about the butterflies and other fascinating insects in our environment can be fun, too. If you see an unusual bug and can get a photo of it, experts at BugGuide can help you identify it.
A last note: If you can, please continue helping the war victims in Ukraine and elsewhere through one of the options listed below:
Maria de Bruyn participates in several nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Orange County Senior Center, coordinates a nature-themed book club, posts on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/bruynmariade/) and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at https://mybeautifulworldblog.com.