On the wing: Moth easily mistaken for a hummingbird

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: October 16, 2012 - 1:24 PM

Readers' birding questions are answered.

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A hummingbird clearwing moth, a species often mistaken for a hummingbird, will uncurl that long proboscis to sip nectar from flowers.

Q We've had several visits to our garden by a hummingbird-like creature. It has a long nose or beak, its wings beat rapidly and it hovers to suck nectar from flowers. Is this some kind of insect?

A Many people mistake the hummingbird clearwing moth for a hummingbird. The moth is slightly smaller than a hummingbird but does have the same preference for flower nectar. They're a treat to watch, as they flit from flower to flower during daylight hours. You can find more about them here: www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Hemaris-thysbe.

Male callers pay a visit

Q I've had slow but steady traffic of female hummingbirds at my nectar feeders all summer, but in the middle of August I suddenly started seeing males, with their bright throats. Why would they be coming now and not before?

A That's an excellent observation and you're correct: Male hummingbirds may seem to disappear during the summer months, while they defend a feeding territory elsewhere. Then they suddenly begin appearing at feeders when they start their migration. The males migrate several weeks before females and the juveniles do.

Robins regroup in fall

Q Where do all the robins go at the end of summer? I don't think I've seen any since the end of July.

A After the breeding season, robins seem to become scarce, as they gather together in large flocks to feed and roost together at night. If you go out to large parks or wooded areas you'll see where the robins spend their early autumn days.

Birds not of a feather

Q I want to share something that took place at my feeder: A male cardinal was eating sunflower seeds and one of the doves on the ground began cooing. The cardinal took a seed in his beak and flew down and fed the dove. He did this about five more times and I have to say it made me tear up.

A That's a great story (wish I'd been there to see this) about one bird feeding another bird of an entirely different species.

This occurred during nesting season for cardinals, and I suspect that the male was spending nearly all of his time feeding his own brood. He'd be hustling around searching for food and whenever he'd approach the nest, his offspring would open their beaks and call, hoping to be the first to be fed. When the dove began calling he "went on automatic" and fed whatever bird was making sounds.

You were privileged to see something rare in the bird world and I can see why you found it affecting.

Urban vultures

Q We live along Minnehaha Creek and have been fortunate to see many bird species, but this is the first time I've seen a turkey vulture. Are these big, ugly birds common in the metro area?

A It's true, turkey vultures are not very attractive, at least to us humans. They spend much of their time in rural and undeveloped areas, wafting in the air, hoping to find carrion. But it's not unusual for one to drift into the metro area, which features a great deal of roadkill for a scavenging bird. It might help to think of them as Mother Nature's cleanup crew, consuming carcasses that might otherwise litter the landscape.

Singing for their supper

Q My husband and I have noticed that the birds that come to our black oil sunflower seeds are very vocal while they're feeding. I'm surprised that they can crack seeds and eat while chirping away and wonder why they're doing this. Are they calling other birds to join them, or bragging about finding a treasure trove of food, or are they happy?

A I enjoyed your speculations and I do like to think of birds feeling pleased when they find a good source of food. Chickadees, especially, seem to like to announce that they've discovered a bountiful spot.

One possibility is that you may be seeing primarily young birds, who called from the nest as parent birds brought in food, and might still associate calling or singing with feeding time (goldfinches and housefinches do this). Or these might be parent birds calling to their youngsters to bring them in to try feeders (I've seen orioles and woodpeckers doing this).

Nest box plans

Q I love bluebirds and wonder if you might have plans for building bluebird nest boxes.

A Kudos to you for wanting to provide housing for bluebirds, which need all the help they can get, since nesting cavities are always in short supply.

Your best source for information about all things related to bluebirds is the North American Bluebird Society, www.nabluebirdsociety.org. This site has plans for bluebird houses at www.nabluebirdsociety.org/nestboxplans.htm. You might also look into an excellent book published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Carrol Henderson's "Woodworking for Wildlife," second edition. It's full of information and detailed plans.

Something to crow about

Q I'm a little confused by your mention that you are a big fan of crows. I don't mind crows but this seems inconsistent since you've also stated that they raid other birds' nests. Can you share why you're a crow proponent?

A I'm not a fan of nesting-raiding behavior, but crows aren't the only species that do this. In fact, most larger birds will raid the nest of a smaller bird, such as an oriole carrying off warbler eggs or nestlings.

I admire crows for their intelligence and the fact that they are excellent parents, caring for their young over a number of seasons. They're so smart that they solve the challenges of survival early in any given day and have free time to explore their world, watch other beings and even to have fun. There are well-documented instances of crows inventing aerial games, sliding on snowy roofs or hills and teasing dogs and cats, for example.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.

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