Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

October 1901. Proceedings of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union 2: 34-38. Plus five photos.

A Late Nest of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Frank H. Shoemaker, Omaha

On the 13th of last July, an ornithological friend mentioned to me the fact that he had ford a nest of the Ruby-throated Humming-bird with two young, in the woods near Bellevue, about eight miles from Omaha. He kindly directed me to the nest, and three days later I attempted to find it. My friend had described the location, and stated that I might know the tree by the presence of a nest of the Acadian Flycatcher on one of the lower branches, almost overhanging a wagon road. I missed my directions, however, and failed to find the tree.

On August 19, as I was leaving a shady ravine where I had been watching a vireo, I happened by the merest chance to see a nest of the Humming-bird, placed about eight feet from the ground upon a horizontal branch. I at once recalled my July directions, and went to the opposite side of the tree to look for the Flycatcher's nest, finding it as described. A well-worn road lay not more than twenty feet from the tree. This of course convinced me that the nest was the one for which I had made the unsuccessful search, so I climbed the tree with the intention of cutting off the branch. This I was about to do when I saw to my surprise that the nest contained two eggs. Still supposing it to be the nest which on July 13 had contained two young birds about ready to leave, I was at a loss to understand the circumstances, when I caught sight of another nest on a branch three feet higher. This was weather-beaten and misshapen, and plainly the one described to me; while the nest with eggs, not forty inches from the old nest, was beyond a reasonable doubt a second nesting of the same birds. The second nest was in perfect condition, the lining being soft and thick, and the rims and outer walls covered with sea-green lichens closely bound with an almost invisible mesh of spider webs. Both nests were situated upon the branches about eight feet from the trunk of the tree. I saw neither of the parent birds, though I remained in the immediate vicinity for some time.

To ascertain the date of most common nesting in this latitude, I consulted all available works on ornithology, over twenty in number, embracing, such authorities as Audubon, Wilson, Cores, Ridgway, Bendire, Maynard, and Davie, as well as state or local treatises such as those of Oberholser, Hatch, Butler, and Cook, finding the dates to range from May 10 to July 15. In all these works I found but two detailed references to late nests. Mr. Oberholser mentions a nest with eggs found July 24 in Wayne county, Ohio, and Major Bendire speaks of a nest with fresh eggs August 7. I regret to state that no particulars are given concerning the nest last mentioned, as to locality or even latitude. This investigation convinced me, however, that August 19 is an exceptionally late date. The few nests with eggs which have come under my observation in this region have been found in June. I have also seen several nests in July with young birds.

On August 26 the nest contained a young bird about three days old, the remaining egg apparently being infertile. The little one was far from handsome, with black skin, ragged plumage tracts, stubby bill, and unopened eyes. The mother bird was about the nest, and I saw her feed the young three times, though she was very shy and would not approach the nest while I was near.

My next visit was on September 3. The nestling's eyes were now open, and he had grown rapidly. A little clump of elms stood near, and in this I secreted myself, having thus an excellent place of observation not more than eight feet from the nest. Very soon the mother bird appeared, and after a wary approach alighted upon the edge of the nest and thrust her bill far down the throat of the young bird. I could see her throat move as she regurgitated the food. She left her bill in the little one's throat for about six seconds, then withdrew it. This operation was repeated four times, with intervals of three to six seconds between. She tried to feed it a fifth time, but the young bird would not open its bill, and after several efforts she desisted and flew away. She kept up a continuous chatter while about the nest, except when actually feeding. Her note consisted of two syllables as a rule, though sometimes a single chirp, always of the same pitch and duration, repeated several times in succession; a very simple chirp, fairly clear, but not loud. She commenced this vocal greeting when ten or fifteen feet from the nest, always approaching cautiously, making short dashes and hovering after each. When the little one heard her note or the sound of her wings it was at once on the alert, answering her calls in kind,though much less strongly, and straightening its neck for the expected food. After feeding she came to my place of concealment and hovered not three feet away, making short lateral dashes and viewing me from every side with great agitation, with a continuous chirping. After this inspection she dashed away over the treetops, and did not return for three-quarters of an hour. Upon her return she was too wary to go near the nest, and flew away after, again viewing me carefully. In a half hour she came back, first approaching the nest, then coming to my elms, inspecting me several times before her maternal bravery bore her to the edge of the nest. She inserted her bill three times, and again made several attempts to feed the little one after it was satisfied. I remained at the nest fifty minutes after she left, but she did not again return during that time.

During the absence of the mother I frequently examined the young bird quite closely. There was a perceptible swelling under the skin at the base of the neck, due, I assumed, to the frequent feedings. It seemed to have no fear, its leading instinct being to take food. I should mention another instinct, however - its determination to avoid a fall was quite remarkable. Having on this occasion no means of elevating the camera, I found it necessary to tip the nest quite sharply to obtain a photograph, and at first moved with great caution for fear of upsetting the little one; but I soon became convinced it would take care of that matter. I removed the infertile egg and gave little further attention to the angle of the nest. I had left the egg thus long for fear the parent bird would resent any change at my hands. Room was becoming valuable with the growth of the little one, however, and with an available space only three-fourths of an inch in diameter and one-half inch deep there was none to spare for the egg. In fact, as the growth of the bird continued, it became to me more and more a matter of wonder that two young hummingbirds can possibly share so small a nest - two being invariably the number of eggs deposited.

I ventured to take the young bird from the nest for the purpose of photographing it upon my finger, to have an adequate means of conveying an idea of its tiny proportions. I bent down the branch and tied it securely, so that I might use both hands; but even then I felt much as a jeweler might if he were to attempt to handle the delicate parts of a watch with his fingers. With an ever-present fear of a fall, the little one clutched the bottom of the nest, and brought away two tufts of the silken lining. It was too young to perch, but clung bravely to my forefinger with a little aid from me in balancing. To my regret, I heard the mother bird's wings the instant I exposed the plate. She dashed wildly about the nest several times looking for her young, then flew away over the treetops. I repaired the rumpled lining with as little delay as possible and replaced the young bird in the nest, with guilty visions of a provoked desertion and a hungry little Hummingbird vainly waiting, then withdrew to a more distant point than usual. I recalled all the picturesquely absurd stories of birds - hummingbirds in particular, as I remembered on this occasion - dropping dead when their nests were discovered; or poisoning themselves and perhaps the whole family if the eggs or young were touched, and spent a very anxious ten minutes trying to assort the true from the false and awaiting developments, when the mother bird returned and promptly resumed her duties.

The little one was very active and bright, frequently turning about in the nest and moving its wings to different positions. Once it stretched its neck straight above the nest to its full extent, and held it so for over a minute.

After office hours on the 7th I started for the nest - a six-mile street car ride and a two-mile walk from the end of the line. The young Hummingbird had grown remarkably. I was greatly surprised to find that the feathers of the back, even at so early an age, had a distinctly greenish cast, with the iridescence quite marked. The breast and under parts were whitish and the throat white. The tail had grown perceptibly; the middle feathers were black and the outer feathers broadly tipped with white. There were two distinct touches of white about the eyes, one above and one below. The feathers had become sufficiently long to cover all parts of the body. The feet and bill were black, the latter having lengthened surprisingly. The bird was still fearless, and after the usual opposition about leaving the nest perched contentedly upon the tip of my finger. It took advantage of this airy position to exercise its wings, which it did time after time, with sufficient rapidity to produce a fairly audible humming sound. When it did this I could feel the tiny feet clutch more closely.

On the 9th I left home at half past ten o'clock with camera and twelve plates, half fearing that the little wings had by this time carried away my subject. I approached the nest ready for such a misfortune, but the young Hummingbird was still in possession, and I hastened to renew my acquaintance. Within the two days since my last visit, however, it had become possessed of another instinct - that of fear. As I touched the branch the bird left the nest and fluttered to the ground ten feet away, dropping lightly upon a bed of molding leaves. I soon had it in my hands, and was delighted to find that it was willing to take up matters where we had dropped them, and during the four hours which I spent at the nest it showed no further signs of fear. The glossy green of the back had become more noticeable, and the black feathers of the tail now had a violet iridescence. I was almost certain that the bill had grown perceptibly within forty-eight hours, in spite of the feet that the ornithologists declare the growth of the bill to be very slow. The feathers had become smoother and presented a fairly mature appearance. The little one had acquired ambitious tendencies, and promptly climbed and fluttered to the highest available perches. When placed at the bottom it clambered many times to the top of my ladder of four fingers. As upon the occasion of my preceding visit, it seemed to enjoy clutching my finger and exercising its wings. It proved an admirable photographic subject, and eleven of the twelve plates which I exposed were successful. One photograph of particular interest shows the young bird with neck stretched to its full extent; the mother bird flew over and the little one prepared to meet her. I had the pleasure of seeing the feeding repeated several times that afternoon.

During all the time I spent at the nest a total of twelve and one half hours on five separate days - I did not see the male parent. It seems to have been fully established by observers that the male takes no further interest in the family after the completion of the nest, as a rule; perhaps leaving even that duty to the female in most cases.

On the 8th of September occurred the terrible Galveston storm. On the night of the 10th the storm reached Omaha, and it was quite severe, with strong wind and heavy, cold rain. I thought many times of the little home on the branch in the woods, and wondered whether the little one and the mother could cling to the frail, swaying nest through the long cold night. I shall never know; but during my numerous visits at the nest I acquired an interest and a sense of proprietorship which prompt me to hope and feel that the little family found its way safely beyond our borders before the cold frosts set in.