Hotbed of Hummingbirds
by Marie Nesmith
Sep 05, 2010 | 3091 views | 0 0 comments | 122 122 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Rachel Guice holds a hummingbird rescued from a pail of water at her grandmother Elsie Healy’s yard in Kingston. After an hour, the bird, which she named Twitter, regained its strength and flew away. Elise Healy/Special
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At less than 4 inches tall, hummingbirds can be quite a challenge to photograph. However, with more than 60 jockeying for a spot at Elsie Healy's 10 hummingbird feeders, capturing an image of one in flight has become an art for the Kingston resident. While each picture is dear to her heart, one of her favorites is of her 7-year-old granddaughter, Rachel Guice, holding a hummingbird about two weeks ago.

"The best thing is to watch my granddaughter and the other children's faces when they hold one in their hand. [I took] a picture of her holding one," Healy said about her granddaughter. "She rescued it from a pail of water and she was waiting for him to dry off. They go into a torpor state and they can stay in it for an hour when the temperature drops or something happens and people think that they're not alive.

"Well in about an hour they come out of it and wake up. You can feed them and then they'll take off again. So ... she dried it and she was holding it in her hands, waiting for it to fly off," she said, adding the bird revived in about 15 minutes and flew off within an hour. "The expression on her face tells it all. [I enjoy] just watching other people, [seeing] how fascinated they are."

For the past 20 years, Healy's hobby has grown from purchasing one hummingbird feeder at the request of her mother to a full-time commitment.

"Right now I guess because the flowers may be scarce this year, I seem to have more than usual," she said. "The female hummingbird has two sets of babies a year. She'll bring one set to the feeder and by now she's already brought her second set so I have eight to 10 hummingbirds at each feeder and I have 10 feeders.

"I started out using 4 cups of food a week in early spring and by now I have 10 feeders and I'm using a gallon and a half of food a day. Then by the end of this month, it will go up to 2 gallons a day. They're feeding real heavy because they are getting ready to fly to the Gulf of Mexico. They fly there and South America."

In the early morning and late afternoon, the hummingbirds are the most active, making it fun for Healy, 57, and her friends and family to watch from her screened porch.

"It's almost a no-walk zone, they fly through so much," said Healy's husband, Joe. "She is very committed to it and when I'm at home -- when I'm not at work -- it's just amazing to watch them. If you've had a stressful day and all kinds of stuff goes on and you come home and just sit on the porch and watch them, [it] is just an incredibly peaceful experience.

"When I'm off like on the weekends, we sit out there together and drink our coffee and watch them in the morning get their day started. Then in the evening also, they're eating and they're flying around. They're just so territorial. They act like they are defending their territory, but it's almost comical the way they fly up and down and chirp. We have a screened-in porch and they'll come fly up to the screen wire and just chirp at us like checking in or something. It's just really humorous."

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the ruby throat, which is the only type of hummingbird that nests in Georgia, also is the state's smallest bird at 3.5 inches. Feeding between five and eight times every hour, "an average hummingbird consumes half its weight in sugar a day. ... Hummers average 35 mph during flight, but are capable of flying upwards at 75 mph. A hummingbird's wings beat 2.7 million times as it flies nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico from the United States to Mexico. With a strong headwind, the flight takes 10 hours."

Even though Georgia Department of Natural Resources recommends planting hummingbird friendly flowers like butterfly-weed, foxglove and salvia, Healy said many of the often suggested flora are too delicate. After much experimentation and many plants being destroyed by the birds with petals ending up on the ground, Healy has found success with lantana. Having planted the hardier flower, she currently enjoys the ability to watch the hummingbirds at her feeders as well as in their natural environment.

With the hummingbirds' constant need for food, Healy's services are needed throughout the day, refilling each feeder with four cups of water and one cup of sugar. Healy has found that the 4-to-1 mixture, which she makes with her granddaughter, comes closest to real nectar. She also said it is important to maintain feeders regularly so the water/sugar solution will not sour or turn cloudy.

While Healy has obtained pertinent information from books, a lot of her knowledge about hummingbirds has come through her everyday interaction with them.

"The information I have is information I've learned firsthand," she said. "I actually know their chirps. I can go outside and I know if they are calling a baby to the feeder or if they're letting me know a feeder's empty. But I actually could tell that after 20 years. I can have the door open to my home from the screened-in porch and I'll hear a certain chirp and I'll know a feeder's empty. ... I [also] know that the same ones do return to the same place.

"I know that for a fact because I had a feeder hanging by my door for three years and the year when they came back in the spring they kept buzzing the hook where I [previously] had the feeder hanging."

Even though maintaining a hummingbird haven is a full-time endeavor, Healy -- at the prompting of loved ones -- continues to be up to the challenge each year.

"It takes a lot of commitment because I did some volunteer work one year and instead of eating lunch I had to come home and fill up hummingbird feeders," she said. "I couldn't get anybody for that day. It takes a lot of commitment because you have to clean them real regular.

"The cleaning is real important and making sure the food is just right, it's not soured or cloudy in any way and keeping the ants off. I'm real glad it's not an all year thing. It gives me a break. Every year I say, 'I'm probably not going to do it next year,' then I'll have so many people to give me encouragement that [say], 'You got to, you got to.'"