My Friend the Ruby-Throat
SOME years ago it was suggested that we add the ruby-throated hummingbird to our list of domesticated animals and turn him to account in greenhouse work, in cross-pollinating flowers, and destroying troublesome insects. It did not seem a difficult task: just catch a few, find what their foods were, free them in green-houses, and let them do the rest.
Just catch a few! We were weeks in catching even one. For more than a year, at odd moments, we tried. Many methods were used: insect-nets, birdlime, a spray of water, open windows with flowers inside, and finally a trap. At last! Could it really be? I hardly dared trust my senses. Yes, — it was a humming-bird squeak that came from the little bag, and the boy asked if I was the lady who would pay a dollar for a humming-bird. It must be! How had he caught it? — Under his cap! — How strange! — And had it a ruby throat? He was n’t sure. Well, we could find that out.
Doors were closed and locked, and screens carefully placed in every window. Then the wonderful bag was cautiously opened. Way down in the bottom crouched the dear, funny little bird, with his bright eyes looking us straight in the face and his long bill pointing at a sharp angle from the wee body. Just a baby one — Would he die of fright? He did not attempt to fly out, so we tore open the side of the bag down to where he sat; but he did not move. Then, placing my finger gently under his toes, and lifting slowly, I beheld the jewel upon my hand.
Never was a sweeter creature in the world. So beautiful with his green and golden reflections, with his whitetipped tail and trusting face! He looked about, not in the least afraid, and when a moment later we offered him a drop of honey from a finger-tip he sipped it off in apparent glee. Such a busy little white tongue! When the finger was removed farther and farther from the tongue, the tongue reached farther and farther for the honey. Then drops of water were given and accepted in the same way. After the lunch he still held tightly to the finger and, tipping his head this way and that, surveyed his new home. A whole house, but even that seemed cramped quarters for such a sprightly creature. The new perch of soft warm material suited his toes and he was in no hurry to leave. There he sat while I made a strenuous attempt to finish my supper in left-handed bliss.
When he was invited to sit on another’s finger he decided to fly instead. The curtains had been drawn lest he should dash out his life in an attempt to fly through glass, but this proved an unnecessary precaution. Back and forth he flew, from one room to another, near the ceiling. When he tried to alight he had considerable difficulty, but finally got nicely perched on the curtain-pole and tucked his little toes under the soft meshes of curtain and went to sleep. We wondered whether he would tuck his head under a wing, and what would become of the long bill; but his habit of sleep seemed to be different from other birds we had noticed, for he just tipped back his head and slept with upturned bill. When, an hour later, we returned with all the wild flowers of our immediate neighborhood, we found him still sleeping and his position unchanged.
Early the next morning I hurriedly crept down to see if he was impatient for breakfast; but he was still sitting where he had been the night before, and when I stood upon a chair and touched him he gave a sad squeak and opened his bill very wide, yawning like a waking child. Then he was still again, and I feared his toes were entangled and that he was dying. He seemed so weak and cold that I took down the pole to warm him; but there was no fire in the house and my hands were colder than he. To breathe upon him was the only hope, for he had fallen upon his side and his eyes were closed. Honey could not tempt his arrow tongue. No; he was dying. So short a life, so unnecessary a death! What could I do?
Remembering the stories of how easily humming-birds get chilled and how successfully they may be warmed to life, I kept breathing upon him. Faster and faster his wee body shook; was it the death-gasp or returning life? No; it was regular. Nearly an hour passed and he still lived; his health was improving, it seemed. Little eyes opened for a moment; he sat upon his feet; yes, he was surely getting stronger. But what would become of him during the next two hours while I was away from the house?
We decided to arrange a sitting-room for him; so two strawberry baskets were tied together, and in the lower one a carpet of clover blossoms was placed. While I arranged this new home he was taken into bed and kept in warm hands, which revived him so that he tried his wings, — though without attempting to fly away, — just to see if they would work. Then he was put in his basket for safe-keeping, and this was surrounded by warm bed-clothes.
When I returned two hours later, he was in prime condition, had had an early lunch, and was flutteringly impatient for breakfast.
The box was opened, and he crept out upon my hands and was placed upon a wild rosebud in the centre of the table; and he sat there contentedly enough, looking about and sipping honey whenever a sweetened finger was presented to him. Just before we had finished he decided to have a bit of exercise, and leaving his wild-rose parlor, he flew and flew — but not high as he had the night before. This time he alighted on objects much lower — on the backs of chairs, on the frame above the hanging lamp, once upon a plate, where he struggled awkwardly like a boy on skates for the first time. He was far too apt a pupil not to learn where it was best to alight. Over the back of one chair we placed a Japanese napkin so he could hold on better, and he discovered the fact at once and never lighted again on any of the other dining-room chairs. The bunch of roses interested him greatly, and he made frequent hovering visits to them, getting his bill covered with pollen. Next, he flew upon my sister’s back as she bent over the table, and made haste to clean his bill on her big apron. He flew round and round the rooms, but never dashed at a window, though the curtains were left well up. Several times, however, he tried to find out what eyes were made of, and we had to close them for protection.
Of all the flowers he seemed to like the evening primrose best, and hurried to probe each new one we presented. Red clovers he tried, but found rather unsatisfactory; dog-bane seemed to please him, and blue-bells, sweet peas, and red lilies. We hoped that if we brought them in straight from the garden he might find tiny insects to keep him well and strong. Water and honey he had found plentifully on our fingers, and he came to believe that honey grew on skin as nectar does in blossoms, and he followed us all about, licking our faces or hands whenever he could get near enough. In the kitchen he was charmed by a big tin-can with a gorgeous red and green label. It was standing on the stove, and after trying in vain to find its nectar glands, he alighted beside it on the stove, which fortunately was cool enough, so that he was not injured.
We noticed that his wings, when he alighted, instead of being placed close to his body, drooped by his side, half outspread, as if he were prepared to dart away at any moment. Another peculiarity was his apparent inability to light while suspended buzzingly over flowers or a drop of honey. We would raise a hand beneath his little body, hoping that he would settle down upon it; but instead he would draw his tightly-curled toes closer and hang himself higher in the air —higher and higher, until he seemed to stand on his head above the flower. After several trials he learned to light when a hand was presented. At first we brought this about by having one hand over him as the other rose toward him; and he did not appear frightened in the least, simply stopped his wings and was at rest in a moment, but continued busily probing the flowers.
The greatest difficulty we had with him was in getting him to leave a finger after he had settled upon it. If he chose to rest we could not coax him off; he would nap contentedly while we carried him all about.
A large net-house had been erected for him in one corner of the room so he need not be confined in a basket while we were away from the house, and there he spent an hour or more the latter part of the morning. Later, he had a little fly about and more honey, water, and a flower-visit; then he seemed tired and fell asleep. He was put back in his net-house to finish his nap, and a little later I found him dead.
Was it a murder, or may the accidental and unexplainable death be forgiven? Is my study destined to destroy humming-bird happiness? or may it by careful methods finally increase the ruby-throat species and add greater happiness to them and those who love them?
My humming-birds visited cannas, salvias, fuchsias, trumpet creepers, petunias, larkspurs, morning-glories, verbenas, weigelias, evening primroses, the cypress vine, red clover, blueberry blossoms, Missouri currants, altheas, jewel-weed, fire-weed, and red milkweed, red field lilies, sweet peas, mignonette, phlox, orange sweet-william, lilacs, hybiscus, coral honeysuckles, lantanas, columbines, scarlet-runner beans, coral closed clematis, butterand-eggs, and various other wild and garden flowers.
It is evidently color which attracts the birds rather than odor, for they have been known to probe the artificial flowers on ladies’ hats, to fly to bright ribbons or pictures of flowers.
The birds seemed to have individual tastes, some preferring one flower, some another. The general favorites appear to be cannas, salvias, trumpetvines, and honeysuckles. If these are in bloom it is useless to spend much time waiting for visitors among the other flowers. The honeysuckle vine will be visited perhaps ten times as often as the hollyhocks and lilies.
The frequency of the visits is a variable quantity and has often seemed to vary inversely as the square of my leisure.
The birds probably visit many gardens, often long distances apart. I have waited at sunrise in most tempting honeysuckle bowers and have been repaid for three hours’ watching by but two visits. Then again, the birds have come every ten or twenty minutes until nine o’clock, and then every half-hour or hour, or at even longer intervals, till toward dusk, when they again come frequently.
A casual observer may think that the ruby-throat lives on nectar and takes his food only from flowers, but a little careful watching will show that after a visit to the nasturtium bed he alights on a dead twig in some neighboring tree. Thence he surveys the gardens, and pounces upon unsuspecting insects. Their minute size makes it almost impossible to detect what they are.
A number of times we observed that one bird would feed while the mate perched some twenty feet away, apparently watching over it. Again and again I crept up close to a bird which was busily feeding in some deep corolla, and was on the verge of dashing my net over it when, from the observation twig a few yards away, down came the mate, squeaking vociferously, and the feeding bird at once made a hasty retreat.
One day a bird which was sipping among the cannas flew to a canna leaf and, with feet curled up and wings closed, coasted down the sun-warmed surface. When she reached the bottom she spread her wings, flew to the top, and repeated the performance. After some ten or more coasts she went on feeding. Do humming-bird mothers have to punish their children for running away and spoiling their best clothes coasting?
On one occasion I witnessed what must have been the love-scene. A male ruby-throat had taken possession of the coral honeysuckle vine and sat there most of the morning, even though I moved about on the porch and went within a few feet of him. After a while he went away, and a female appeared and busily gathered nectar. Some of the time she fed on the wing, but not infrequently alighted on a twig and bent over to the blossom. She was much more timid than he had been. Finally, he returned and they dashed upward some ten feet as if quarreling, but came back together; and then she perched in the vine and he flew about in a most threatening manner. He darted back and forth past her — going about four feet in each direction. As he flew there was a sound audible, which was very different from his squeak or from the ordinary sound of his buzzing wings. It was higher in pitch than the buzz, and was produced each time he passed her. Her head moved back and forth, watching him intently. This was continued for three or four minutes, and then they flew away together.
The birds are said to be easily overcome by cold or a sudden shower; and when chilled or frightened they fall into a condition not unlike a faint, and it requires very delicate treatment to get them safely on the wing again. One chilled in this way was found in Celia Thaxter’s garden, and she warmed it to life in her hands and placed it in a basket among the flowers. Later, this same bird would come to her as she roamed about the gardens.
After days and days of unsuccessful efforts to catch a humming-bird, at last, when the autumn migration season approached, and the birds were more numerous, I did manage by the assistance of a small boy and a park policeman to get one in the net. It was quickly transferred to a box and taken home, and there it was allowed to fly about my room, where a maple branch was placed across a corner on the moulding. Great masses of flowers were arranged on a large table, and some of these were sprinkled with honey. This capture took place at noon, and before four o’clock the bird came to the flowers I held and stopped to rest, alighting on my arm. All went well till dusk, when the poor creature could not be satisfied with such accommodations for the night. I brought in branches of various sizes and kinds, and placed them all about the room, but nothing was satisfactory. The little captive flew and flew until it fell to the floor exhausted. After it had been sufficiently restored by means of drops of water on its head and drops of honey on its bill, it was put in a cage in the closet so that it might remain quiet. And when we looked in upon it before going to bed, it seemed to be asleep, sitting on the little perch with its head tilted back.
Early in the morning it was lively, and fed from the flowers, but the restless flying along the ceiling was continued till its tiny bill left streaks of blood everywhere it touched, and the poor bird fell to the floor so often and so hard that we had to put sofa pillows all about to soften the falls.
I could not understand the reason of this flying. There were fresh flowers, plenty of honey, and water-drops; the perches seemed like the ones the bird chose out-of-doors; but she lacked her freedom and that was something she could not endure. Early the next morning she was taken to some canna-hcds and allowed to go. She seemed in no hurry, but sat on my hand and was carried from blossom to blossom, and she would sip from them as soon as she was brought near enough. After waiting five minutes or more for my guest to take her departure, I was obliged to hasten it by lowering my hand suddenly. Then she took the hint and flew away.
This experience of two days of untold misery for both the bird and myself was very conclusive evidence to me that I must know more of hummingbirds’ ways and needs before I could handle them successfully, so all elforts to capture them were abandoned.
Nevertheless, when summer came again with its semi-leisure and humming-birds, a few interesting experiments were tried. Instead of going to the birds I coaxed them to come to me. A bottle filled with sugar-syrup was hung against a tree-trunk. A nasturtium blossom with its spur nipped off was placed in the bottle, so that the open end of the spur dipped into the syrup. Soon the bird came along, and after visiting the nasturtium-bed came to the lone blossom on the side of the tree. Again and again it came, neglecting the gardens and devoting all its energies to extracting nectar from this new species of nasturtium. Between its visits I pinched off one petal and then another, and finally took out the spur, and the bird continued the visits to the flowerless bottle.
As the tree was not conveniently located for close watching, especially in early mornings, the bottle was removed to my window in the second story. A jar of nasturtiums was placed on the window-sill to flag the bird, and she found the bottle early the next morning. She went to it at once and began to partake of its contents. I held it in my hand and still she came; she would even come two feet into the room to it, and within a foot of my face.
Next, a series of bottles was placed on the window-sill containing, in order, sugar-and-water, sugar-syrup, maplesyrup, honey and water (fifty per cent), and pure honey. She went from one to another, tasting each, and then made all her future visits to the fifty per cent honey. For several days the bottle was hung on the hook of the blind, and she came some twenty-five times a day, consuming about fifteen cubic centimetres of liquid each day.
Next, we tried to take pictures of her, and after several unsuccessful efforts to get pictures looking outwards from the window, an improvised table containing the camera focused on the bottle was placed outside, so that the bird would be taken from the lighted side. All this paraphernalia disquieted her, and for a day she returned to the flowers, and refused to come near the bottle. Little by little, however, she gained courage, and cautiously resumed her new habit of feeding.
But our troubles were not over by any means, for humming-birds do most of their marketing at early hours in the morning and in late afternoon. An exposure of one twenty-fifth of a second showed a ghost of the bird. She was drinking at the first click, but had gone long before the twenty-fifth of a second had elapsed. To have a shorter exposure meant to have more light, and only between eleven and one o’clock could that be had, and then only on most favorable days. But during those hours she usually made only one or two visits. Even when a picture was secured it was unsatisfactory and a white background had to be added. This had to be placed only a foot from the bottle and was looked upon with suspicion. It also cut off my view of the bottle, but I remedied that by a mirror. The chief difficulty, however, was beyond my control. The rate at which the humming-bird’s wings vibrated in sustaining the bird in a position of poise over the bottle was one hundred and seven per second. The quickest time of the camera was one one-hundredth of a second, so that the wings always showed a blur.
After the bird had become quite dependent upon her new food, I removed the bottle from the hook one night. At ten minutes to five in the morning she came for breakfast, and not finding it in its usual place came into the room and flew back and forth over me till I got up and served her in the customary way. This was tried several mornings with the same effect. Later, a perch was arranged beside the bottle, and the bird sat down for lunch. By this time she was so thoroughly addicted to the bottle-habit that we could move the bottle from place to place and she would invariably find it. At one time it would be by the dining-room window, at another in the netting on the veranda, or on the tree where it was first placed.
Ants and bumble-bees made no end of trouble, however. The ants fell in in great numbers and a bee insisted upon blocking the entrance. The bird did her best to drive it away by darting at it and squeaking, but it paid no attention. Sometimes it reached too far and fell in, more often it had to be put in a box till the bird was supplied; for in spite of her pugnacious tendencies she was entirely unable to control the situation.
I am told that the same bird must have returned the second year, as she imbibed freely as soon as the bottle was hung out.
After watching birds out-of-doors and coaxing them in, I began to feel more competent to cater to one in captivity, and succeeded in getting one early in the autumn. She was coaxed into a plant-room through an open door and became confused and could not find the way out. We allowed her the freedom of two rooms, but restlessness came on at dusk, whereupon I placed her on an orange-stick, and she quieted down and slept till morning.
On the second day, she learned to drink from a bottle and to get tiny flies from the wdndow-pane. By the third day, she drank from the bottle while I held it, and when the bottle was not hung in its customary place she buzzed about me till I got it for her.
One day she got the feathers of her head very sticky, and I had to wash them for her, which she greatly resented, showing her disapproval by refusing to come to me for some time. Occasionally she got restless at dusk and buzzed along the ceiling, but when I called her she came down to me and became quiet. After being in captivity ten days she escaped when the room was being cleaned, during my absence.
At last, this past summer was set apart for making the long contemplated study, and I went to the aviaries at Shawnee, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware, where there were facilities for such a study. A elose-mesh-wire netting-room was selected and a garden arranged. Cannas, salvias, hollyhocks, lilies, verbenas, pinks, a geranium, a fuchsia, and some nasturtiums were set out. There were several dog-wood trees and two evergreens.
A trap was made and painted green, and in the meantime a bottle of honey was hung among the honeysuckle vines. In a few days a humming-bird was attracted by the unusual supply of sweets and made very frequent visits. And when I was sure the bird had learned to recognize the bottle, I moved it from place to place and put the trap near the feeding-ground. When the bird was accustomed to seeing the trap there, the bottle was hung against it; then lower and lower to the door, and then inside the trap. So entranced was the little creature that we could walk up to her as she fed, and after a few days it was a perfectly simple matter to walk quietly to the cage and close the door with the treasure inside.
When she found herself imprisoned she made no struggle whatever, but perched on the little branch, or flew quietly about, as the trap was carried to the large cage half a mile away. When the trap-door was opened she flew into the net-inclosed room and, after feeding for a while from the bottle and on numerous tiny insects, she quieted down for the night.
At seven o’clock the next morning she was sitting against the netting, though she had been flying about among the flowers earlier. Time after time I went to see her, but still she clung to the wires in the same position, and when I put my hand over her she gave a pathetic squeak, but did not move. Her claws were so tightly closed about the wire that I dared not try to lift her off. She would not touch honey or water, and we were in despair of saving her. At two o’clock in the afternoon the director of the aviaries went with me to the cage and we decided she must be taken down if we hoped to save her; so with forceps he unclasped her claws while I covered her with my hand and held her when she no longer rested against the netting. She was breathing, and clasped my fingers when her feet were freed, but still the eyes did not open. However, after we had breathed upon her for a few moments, and put drops of honey at the base of her bill, she recovered.
The recovery from such a faint is a marvelous thing to witness. The heartbeat gets stronger and stronger, the eyes open for longer intervals, the toes grasp something substantial, and even the feathers show the improving condition and stand out more firmly.
From that time on she was a normal humming-bird, testing the merits of the various blossoms in her garden, and arranging her attire with the most feminine precision. In four days she would come to drink from her bottle while I held it; indeed, so rejoiced was she to see it coming that I had difficulty in getting into the cage without letting her out. She would sip from any receptacle I chanced to bring, bottle or spoon or jar. She took from six to ten grams of honey-and-water solution each day. A banana was hung in the cage and she fed on the pomace flies which gathered about it. A curious habit and difficult to explain was that of almost alighting on a leaf and then pouncing down and seizing the insects that flew out from the under-side.
Not being acquainted with her bathing habits, I put out an abalone shell as the most artistic bathing-dish for her; but never to my knowledge did she pay the least attention to it. One morning, in the midst of a shower, however, she crouched down on the wet blade of a dogwood leaf and, with head outstretched and rapidly fluttering wings, spattered the raindrops in every direction. She went from leaf to leaf until she had succeeded in getting her feathers very wet; then she perched on a twig, shook off the drops, and carefully preened her feathers. It is not improbable that, in the absence of rain, humming-birds use the dewdrops in early morning. In closer captivity this bird bathed in a gladiolus blossom. Hereafter, a pitcher-plant is to be used. A humming-bird which was accustomed to drinking sweetened water from a spoon, one day found water there instead of sweets, whereupon she at once alighted on the edge and took a bath.
The extreme hot weather of July did not affect my bird in the least, though hundreds of other birds sat with bills open, as if gasping for breath. Severe thunder-showers with heavy rain came, but she flew about as if nothing were happening. Occasionally in the heaviest storms she did perch in an evergreen tree.
Then I went away for five weeks, and when I came back I had difficulty in coaxing her to drink from the bottle while I held it. She had forgotten me. But now it was time to go home, so she was again trapped and brought from Pennsylvania to Worcester, an elevenhour trip during which, so far as I could tell, she ate nothing.
The migration season did not seem to make her restless, but during the last two weeks of October she became weaker and weaker, and seemed to be moulting. A greater variety of food was given and she was allowed to fly out into the laboratory, but still she grew weaker, and finally died on the last day of October. A post-mortem examination showed carbon-monoxyde poisoning.
During the summer we made a constant effort to catch a mate for her. We did trap another female, but as she was terribly frightened and beat against the sides of the trap we gave her her freedom at once. It is impossible to get near the male birds with a net, and they do not become accustomed to bottle-feeding. The only male birds I ever got were two which flew in at open windows, and both died in a few hours. One was dead when brought to me the other was seriously injured by beating against the windows and walls.
Nevertheless, from these few observations I feel more and more certain that with proper green-house facilities it will be possible to breed these treasures in captivity, and to establish a most friendly relation with them.
Even were the ruby-throat to be of no value for destroying insects or for cross-fertilizing hot-house and garden flowers, he would still be worthy of our love and care from an eesthetic standpoint, so swift is he, so graceful, so altogether lovely.