IS IT SPRING ALREADY?

As any California naturalist is all too aware, the beginning of the calendar year is a confusing time in the Golden State. According to human calendars, winter began barely two weeks ago, yet in our Mediterranean climate what we humans call winter can just as easily be described as spring.

Anna’s Hummingbirds look at California in just that way. Most of the birds native to California mate and raise their young between March and May, but not Anna’s Hummingbirds. Instead, these tiny creatures begin breeding in December. Even now, many have already laid their eggs, and as this new year begins, some females are already hard at work feeding nestlings.

At first glance, this might not make much sense. Why would this one species build nests, lay eggs, and raise young during the heart of our California winter? Surely this must be a bad idea, but of course it is not. Nature, in its own way, always makes sense.

Before we humans remodeled the Golden State with our ubiquitous presence, Anna’s Hummingbirds lived primarily in chaparral habitats, those areas in our hills and mountains covered with low thickets of shrubbery. Because chaparral plants live in dry and extremely difficult environments, many of them – especially manzanitas and gooseberries – bloom during the California rainy season. Anna’s hummingbirds long ago learned to take advantage of this winter blooming – it became their breeding season.

Nesting birds, whether they be tiny hummingbirds or giant eagles, require a reliable food supply. Without such a supply, their ability to raise young disappears. By nesting in mid-winter, when no other hummingbird species remain in the interior of California, breeding Anna’s Hummingbirds gain control of just such a food supply – a set of nectar-filled flowers that belonged just to them.

Today many Anna’s Hummingbirds no longer live in chaparral. Some still do, of course, but many others have discovered another environment where nectar-laden flowers can be found even at the coldest time of the year. I speak of our human gardens.

Anyone who maintains a garden in Central California can count on seeing Anna’s Hummingbirds year round. These are the hummers in your garden right now, the ones fighting over your flowers and, if you put one up, your hummingbird feeder. A quick glance will confirm their presence – the male birds have bright red throats when the light hits them just right.

You will also know that these birds are present because they will be fighting with each other – chasing each other around in endless aerial dogfights. Because hummingbird survival is dependent upon access to nectar, control of flowers (and/or your feeder) is of profound importance to hummingbirds. This makes them highly territorial.

Even during breeding seasons, male and female hummingbirds each maintain their own territories, and they will work very hard to chase away all other hummers, regardless of their sex.

What this means is that for hummingbirds, life is simply one endless war. They fight as if their lives depend upon it, which of course they do.

You can see all this going on right now all over Visalia. Anna’s Hummingbirds are hard at work establishing and defending their individual territories. Meanwhile, male birds are displaying for the females by flying high up into the sky (sometime more than 100 feet!) and then rushing earthward to display their strength and prowess. Just before they crash into the earth, these quickly descending birds turn to the side and use their tail feathers to make a loud squeak – a sound that must be sexy to female hummingbirds.

Check your garden. See what’s going on. You just might be surprised.

(c) Wm. Tweed