Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
The Hanging Hummingbird has returned. For the third September in a row, on the same feeder on the same Lutsen shoreline property, a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is displaying what I consider odd behavior. It hangs upsidedown from one of the perches on a sugar-water feeder here.
Three years ago we watched a feeding hummingbird being attacked vigorously by a second bird. The attacker stabbed its victim and pulled at its feathers with its bill. The attack went on for minutes. Eventually, the attackee hung by its feet from the perch, head down. We assumed it was injured. It soon dropped from the perch and lay on its stomach on the deck floor beneath it, then disappeared. It flew away or rolled off the deck into the weeds; I don’t know.
The second year a hummingbird hung upsidedown on that feeder without an observed attack. We saw that behavior only once. This year a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is hanging again, more than once a day, and two days in a row, Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday morning it hung by one claw on one foot, what looked like a precarious position. I thought perhaps the bird was weak or injured. The hanger returned that evening, hanging for perhaps 30 minutes. It was close to dark when it released its grip and flew away. Monday morning, at 8 a.m., there was the Hanging Hummingbird one more time, firmly gripping the perch with all toes on both feet, eyes open, no problem evident. It hung there while a second hummingbird fed, the feeder returning more than once. That was unusual because for three days prior defense of the feeder as food source for one bird only was the rule. Around 8:15 that morning, the bird was gone. Monday evening it hung again, flying away without apparent problem when approached for photos. It returned to hang a few minutes later.
The bird comes and goes it a natural fashion. It flies as it should. It feeds on occasion. It is not bothered by the other hummingbirds using the feeder. Indeed, they feed from perches beside the hanger.
I have no idea why this behavior is occurring. Maybe we’ve been watching the same bird for three years. The fight three years ago, a serious attack, explained for me the hang at that time; the bird easily could have been wounded. Last year and this year? No idea. I’m contacting a couple of hummingbird specialists to see if they can offer an explanation.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the last documented sighting of the Eskimo Curlew. Everything considered, the species is extinct. And if any remain, they would be so difficult to find/see that extinction is the same.
The bird migrated through southwestern Minnesota on its way to the Arctic tundra for nesting and to the far end of South America when nesting ended. The curlew, one of eight species in its family, as numerous as any shorebird, made one of the longest roundtrip migrations of any bird species.
It disappeared for the usual reasons. When we had wiped out the Passenger Pigeon, that source of meat for market gone, hunters next chose Eskimo Curlews, one hunting party able to take thousands of curlews in a few days. As many as two million birds a year were killed annually, according to estimates.
At the same time, the portion of the birds’ migration path through the United States was being plowed for crops. The prairies that provided the insects that fueled the final legs of migration disappeared.
The curlew could not survive that double whammy. The birds were gone about 20 years after the onslaught began. It doesn’t take long if you ignore what you’re doing.
A few Minnesota birders, not many, have in recent springs invested a day or two to drive the state’s southwestern pastures and prairie remnants in search of migrating flocks of plovers. The curlew resembles a plover, if you take a casual look. These birders held thin hope that the curlew was not extinct, its small remaining numbers simply overlooked. They hoped to find the slimmer, slightly taller bird foraging with the plovers, evident to a sharpened eye.
The last confirmed sighting of Eskimo Curlew was in Texas in 1962. A year later – 50 years ago – a specimen was taken on Barbados. That was the end of the official story. Sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas in 1981 was termed “reliable,” no evidence presented. Ditto unconfirmed reports from Texas and Canada in 1987, Argentina in 1990, and in Nova Scotia as recently as 2006. Unconfirmed is the key word.
A wonderful book about this bird titled “Last of the Curlews” was published in 1954. Canadian author Fred Bosworth offered a fictional account of a year in the life of the bird. Over 3 million copies have been sold. I’ve read it. It’s a good book, a sad story.
That makes three species of birds once seen in Minnesota and now extinct: the curlew, the Passenger Pigeon, and the Carolina Parakeet. The latter’s range just nicked the southwestern edge of the state.
The drawing is from the late 1800s, artist unknown.
Fall migration of birds is underway, although it might not look like it. Migration in this season lacks the breeding imperative of spring. Shorebirds are being reported on muddy lakeshores and in flooded farm fields (we still have some of those). Migration traffic will increase as we move into and through August. Spring migration is much more concentrated. Great numbers of birds move at the same time, all in a rush to get to breeding grounds, to court and nest and raise young as quickly as possible. Late breeders can run out of time, leaving their young with insufficient time to mature to migration strength. You could almost say that fall migrants usually have time to wander south.
Waterfowl also migrate on a looser time schedule. Many of them, geese in particular, are driven south by foul weather and open water closing with ice.
Our neighborhood has seen many more robins in the past few days than in the past few weeks. Breeding is done, young birds are out of the nest; there are more robins to be seen. They do form small flocks as fall progresses, moving south together. They’ll be here until true fall, however, or sometimes until snow. Some mornings you might find dozens of them spread out across a grassy plot, as good as colored leaves at announcing change.
Blackbirds sometimes form flocks of thousands as they prepare for migration. Watch for them in harvested farm fields. You often see them first as they rise in a cloud only to circle and return.
For information on spectacular birding in Alaska go to
Yellow and Yellow-rumped warblers offered feeding action Saturday at a pond near our house. Those species plus Barn and Tree swallows and a lone Eastern Kingbird plucked insects from the water's surface throughout the day. I sat in dry grass beside the pond, watching and taking photos of the acrobatic performances. Palm Warblers were present in an adjoining orchard, but they chose to hunt food in the orchard grass.
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