Nancy Newfield Nancy L. Newfield has been watching hummingbirds at her Louisiana home and lots of other places since 1975. Nancy lost her amateur status years ago, and now writes and lectures on hummers. She is co-author of Hummingbird Gardens, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Nancy is also a licensed hummingbird bander and a recognized authority on hummingbird distribution, behavior, and taxonomy.

July 1997

Promises, Promisesatch him as he samples every flower in the yard, even those that produce little nectar. Watch him as he explores every red-colored item in sight. Notice the brownish edges to the feathers of his nape and rump. Notice the tiny spot of iridescent color in the center of his throat. He is a promise...a promise that there will always be hummingbirds.

Within a few weeks, our yards will be filled with youngsters such as this, inexperienced birds, just out of the nest. Many of them may be just a few weeks old. Boy, do they have a lot to learn!

And, learning is the most important thing a young bird has to do. Mother hummingbirds put a lot of energy into raising their young. They build the nest and lay and incubate the eggs. And the mother hummers brood the naked hatchlings with the warmth of their bodies. Then, they gather copious nectar and insects to nourish the tiny hummer-lets until the little ones are fully grown.

Growth is rapid. It has to be. Summer is brief in northern latitudes. In a little over three weeks, young hummers grow from featherless, grub-sized creatures, barely recognizable as birds, to their fully feathered adult size, though their bills may still lack a few millimeters in length. They spill from the nest after testing their newly feathered wings. The parent bird—the female only—continues to bring cropfuls of vital victuals, but not for long.

In as little as a week after fledging, though sometimes as long as three weeks, these youngsters are completely on their own. Nurturing has been the province of the mother hummer; teaching is not. On their own, these little birds will have to learn all of the skills they need to survive, mostly by trial-and-error.

They will have to master precision flight—take-off, landing, hovering, hawking. And, they'll need to be able to find and secure their own food—in a world of ever-changing resources. Young hummers will learn to bathe and preen to keep their feathers in good condition. And, they will have to learn to recognize dangers and to escape whatever perils may threaten their safety. Navigation is important, too. These mighty mites won't have an experienced parent or a flock to guide the way on migration. And, the price of failure is very, very high.

Feeders, properly maintained, help many a youngster, but not all of them learn to use feeders. Finding nectar in flowers seems to be instinctive, so a well-planted garden provides for them naturally. Woodlands also hold important foods—nectar and flying bugs. Ever-diminishing wildlands simply cannot be replaced by our backyard bounty, no matter how well-intended.

Instinct plays a large role in learning by young hummers. The curiosity that drives them to explore any red object is innate. Even after finding the right kind of blossom, some hummingbirds still have to learn how to gain access to the sweet syrup within.

Last year, I watched one youngster repeatedly investigate the orange-red flowers of a trumpet creeper vine. Time after time, he probed the outside of the large, waxy blossoms, and got nothing for his efforts. Eventually, he inserted his bill and entire head into the long tube. Bingo! The next time, he did it right.

We may be amused to watch such antics, but they are serious, deadly serious, to the hummingbirds. Learn or perish. These hummer-lets don't have a luxury of time as human youngsters do. There is no support system—no Mom and Pop to provide for them when searching has been poor.

As soon as the young are independent, adult hummers—their parents—view them as competitors for scarce resources. No matter how bountiful, resources are always too few. Hummers are just naturally competitive—every minute of every day from the moment of hatching. Each nestling competes with a sibling for the food the mother brings. And, the mother competes with her offspring just as soon as they learn to find their own nectar.

The long days of summer allow time for the youngsters to craft their skills. They cram every lesson needed for survival into just a few short weeks and make it look easy!

Young hummers are marvels—magicians of the air, masters of illusion. Young hummers are the future of their species. They are promises of tomorrow!