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The hummingbirds are coming

Many people view the approach of April 15 with trepidation as the typical IRS tax deadline looms. Mother Nature has provided a more pleasant association for me. April 15 is the day I usually spot my first hummingbird of spring.

It is always a solitary male. He returns annually to the same feeder hung from a crook on my back deck. I have noted his punctuality for nearly a decade. In the wild, hummingbird lifespans average just a few years, so the specific individual that will arrive this year may be a child or grandchild of previous visitors. The little birds don’t wear nametags, so it’s hard to tell. Then, if this year’s schedule follows the norm, a second male will arrive a few days later to claim another feeder hung in a front-yard tree.

These early hummingbird scouts establish their territories and set the stage for the families that will follow. I won’t see any females for weeks, but the population of tiny birds will explode after the girls show themselves. Then the entertainment begins.

My backyard visitor will spend the rest of the spring and summer defending his territory (with varying levels of success). I look forward to the skirmishes with the same kind of enthusiasm I imagine King Arthur may have experienced when his knights competed in jousting tournaments. I suspect the fights serve as exercise routines while providing the means to sharpen and display skills.

The front-yard bird will also try to defend his territory, but if the past is any indication, his effort will be a losing battle. By midsummer, his chosen tree will house an entire flock of hummingbirds. Their combined squabbling will prevent any single individual from holding dominance, so they’ll need to share. The concept of sharing comes as easily to hummingbirds as it does to toddlers.

Despite their name, I’ve never heard a hummingbird hum. Although their wings may whir and buzz, they use their voices to chitter, to scold. Their chiding may be amusing, but it isn’t musical. Birdsong belongs to other species.

Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website (allaboutbirds.org) provides some interesting facts about these little guys. The hummingbirds that arrive so regularly in my yard are all ruby-throated hummingbirds. Although there are several other species in other places, this variety is the only one with a breeding range that includes the eastern U.S. They spend their winters in Central America. After such a long journey to reach Farmville, I suppose it’s no wonder they seem so hungry when they get here.

The hummingbirds that visit my yard are the smallest birds to do so, but they are not the world’s most teensy. Ruby-throated hummingbirds measure about three inches in length with a wingspan of around four inches. The award for the world’s smallest bird, which can be nearly an inch shorter, goes to the bee hummingbird, a resident of Cuba.

Hummingbirds love to sip nectar from tubular flowers and slurp at feeders filled with sugar water. One version of the recipe suggests a quarter cup of regular sugar to a cup of water. In my experience, that isn’t nearly enough. My husband’s bird-approved recipe calls for one entire cup of sugar and four cups of water. He has to make new batches almost daily. Despite the seemingly huge quantity, this isn’t even all they eat. Hummingbirds also need protein, which they get by consuming small spiders and insects, including mosquitos, gnats and fruit flies.

Hummingbirds typically build their thimble-sized nests on tree branches and frequently camouflage them with pieces of lichen or moss. Females lay one to three eggs in a brood and may raise two broods in a year. Mothers incubate the eggs for 12 to 14 days. After they hatch, it takes the baby birds about three weeks to grow feathers and learn to fly.

And, ultimately, that’s what they’ll do — fly away. The males who arrived early will begin to depart as soon as August. Females and this year’s brood will linger longer, with some individuals waiting until October to take to the skies. Then they’ll be gone until the next April 15, and nature’s cycle will repeat.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.