Wildflowers of the Sierra Madre

GrrlScientist posted a couple of photos of cultivated dahlias in Manhattan (one so pink it hurts my eyes), so I though I’d post photos of some relatives of this and other garden ornamentals that grow wild in the Sierra Madre Occidental of western Chihuahua.

Update: Species-level IDs of Salvia townsendii and Euphorbia colorata courtesy of Wynn Anderson, Botanical Curator Emeritus at the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens of the Centennial Museum at the University of Texas at El Paso.


It doesn’t

Just a quick response to whoever is searching for information on whether the sugar water in feeders causes diabetes in hummingbirds. Sugar doesn’t cause diabetes in people, either, but most of us eat way more of it than big sluggish mammals should. This contributes to obesity, which is a significant risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.

Related post:

Search of the Week: Why don’t hummingbirds get diabetes?

“Rescuing” baby hummingbirds

NOTE: This post is about how to determine whether or not baby hummingbirds are actually in need of rescue (spoiler: most “orphans” aren’t). If you need help for a baby hummingbird in obvious danger or distress (fallen from the nest and unable to fly, injured, peeping constantly, covered with ants, etc.):

  • Contact a wildlife rescue organization IMMEDIATELY. To find one, use the links at the end of this post or a Web search, or call your state wildlife agency for a referral.

  • DO NOT contact me about it—I can’t help you, and the bird may die while you’re waiting for me to respond.

  • If the baby is still the in nest and not peeping constantly, read on…

It’s wildlife baby season over much of North America, a time when people with big hearts and inadequate information sentence untold thousands of young wild birds and mammals to needless suffering and death. Inappropriate diet is a major killer, resulting in stunted growth, rubbery bones, and feathers that break as they mature (if they mature at all). The greatest tragedy is that many of these “orphans” never needed intervention in the first place.

Violet-crowned Hummingbird on nest

Violet-crowned Hummingbird on nest

Hummingbirds are frequent victims of misplaced concern. Female hummingbirds spend large amounts of time sitting on their nests during the first three to four weeks of the nesting cycle, incubating the eggs and brooding the tiny, featherless chicks. The nestlings need this near-constant attention at first because they are “cold-blooded” (poikilothermic) at hatching and require their mother’s body heat to live and grow.

Once the nestlings’ pinfeathers break open and expand into an insulating coat of true feathers, their metabolism is ready to switch to “warm-blooded” (homeothermic) mode. At this point, 10 to 12 days after hatching, the mother no longer needs to brood them to keep them warm, even at night. To avoid attracting the attention of predators, she stays away from the nest entirely except for the few seconds it takes to feed them. These visits occur at intervals ranging from less than ten minutes to more than an hour and a half.

This is a critical time for hummingbird nests with a human audience. Observers unaware that this dramatic change in the mother’s behavior is part of the normal nesting cycle may miss the short feeding visits and think that the nestlings have been orphaned or abandoned. Panicked calls to nature centers, zoos, Audubon societies, and bird observatories often go something like this: “I’ve been watching a hummingbird nest and the mother hasn’t been back for two days and I’m afraid the babies are going to starve to death!” (If mama hadn’t been back for two days, the nestlings would already be dead.)

To keep these youngsters out in the wild where they belong and make sure that hummingbirds in genuine peril have the best chance for survival, Project Wildlife in San Diego has published guidelines on when and how to rescue young hummingbirds. Here is an abridged version of PW’s expert advice:


Black-chinned Hummingbird hatchling

Hatchling Hummingbirds
(0-9 days)

IF YOU FIND A HATCHLING HUMMINGBIRD [gray/black, skin naked or covered in quill-like pinfeathers], DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FEED IT! GET HELP IMMEDIATELY.

♦ Try to keep the baby in the nest if possible.

♦ If not, line a plastic margarine cup with tissue and keep the baby warm (this is essential) by placing it under a gooseneck lamp about 5 inches away from the bulb.

♦ Do not overheat the bird. If it starts open-mouth breathing or its neck is outstretched, it is too hot. Overheating can kill the bird.

♦ Keep the baby warmed to an outside temperature—between 85—90 degrees.

Black-chinned Hummingbird nestlings

Nestling Hummingbirds (10-15 days)

PLEASE WATCH THE NEST CONTINUOUSLY FOR ONE HOUR FOR THE RETURN OF THE MOTHER. [I’d recommend lengthening this to two hours.] She will fly in to feed them, which takes only 3-5 seconds, 4-6 times an hour. In our experience, mother hummingbirds normally do not abandon their young unless something has happened to the female.

Baby hummingbirds use silence in the nest as a defense against predators. If the babies are vocalizing by constantly “peeping” for more than 10 -15 minutes they are in trouble (starving) and need help immediately. Silent babies are usually healthy babies!

♦ If they have fallen out of the nest, gently pick them up, check to be sure there are no injuries and carefully place them back in the nest. Once again watch for mom’s return. (Always check the nest first for ants or other insects that may be attacking the babies). If there is a problem with insects, an artificial nest can be constructed.

♦ After placing them back in the nest, it’s important to watch and see that the female continues to feed her young .

♦ If, after monitoring the nest site, it has been determined that the babies are actually abandoned and have to be rescued and readily open their mouth, CAREFULLY drop three drops of sugar water (see adult recipe) into their mouth. Sugar water accidentally dripped onto feathers must be completely wiped off immediately.

♦ If the babies do not open their mouths, gently guide the birds’ beak into the tip of an eyedropper or syringe full of sugar water for feeding.

♦ Offer sugar water every 30 minutes until help can be obtained.

♦ Do not feed sugar water or “nectar” longer than 72 hours.

Black-chinned Hummingbird pre-fledglings

(16-21 days)

Pre–fledgling hummingbirds are fully feathered, have very short, stubby tail feathers and a bill less than 1/2 inch long. They are most often found on the ground. Once again, if you know where the nest is, please put them back and watch for mom’s return.

♦ After placing them back in the nest, it’s important to watch and see that the female continues to feed her young.

♦ If they need to be rescued and open their mouth readily, CAREFULLY drop 5 drops of sugar water into their mouth. Sugar water accidentally dripped onto feathers must be completely wiped off immediately.

♦ If the babies do not open their mouths, gently guide the birds beak into the tip of an eyedropper or syringe full of sugar water for feeding.

♦ Feed every 30 minutes until help can be obtained.

♦ Do not feed sugar water or “nectar” longer than 72 hours.

You can read the entire Hummer Hints handout (PDF) at the Project Wildlife Web site.

A few minutes may mean the difference between life and death for a wild creature in trouble, so right nowbefore you have a wildlife emergency—contact your state wildlife/natural resources agency, local animal control agency or nature center*, or the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association for the name and phone number of a wildlife rescue organization or independent wildlife rehabilitator in your area, or use this state-by-state directory (which may not be entirely up-to-date—try contacting the person or organization to make sure the listing is accurate). Keep the name and number by the phone so that you can get help as quickly as possible should the need arise.

* Normally I would recommend humane societies and zoos as resources, but not after what happened to the Wisconsin Mango.


Wildlife Rehabilitator Directory – US
Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory
WildCare: U.S. Wildlife Rehabilitators Listed by State
Wildliferehabber.org: Rehabbers by State
Wildlife Rescue Groups

They don’t

Just a quick response to the person who found my blog by searching for “how do hummingbirds disprove evolution.”

Birds and beats

I hadn’t planned on blogging about the recent experiments that verify that Snowball the cockatoo really does dance to human music. Not only has it been covered admirably by Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science, but this isn’t exactly a stunning revelation.

Many people who live with parrots have observed this behavior (my own African Grey dances daily, though she’s more subdued and rhythmically challenged like the late Alex). Published scientific observations of other species responding to human music go back at least as far as Persian scientist Ibn al-Haytham’s Treatise on the Influence of Melodies on the Souls of Animals, more than eight centuries before Darwin, in The Descent of Man, credited both vocal and instrumental music to other species and speculated on the prehuman origins of our own music. The novelty of the current study is that the behavior came to the attention of someone who recognized its evolutionary and neurobiological significance and documented it experimentally, playing speeded-up and slowed-down versions of one of Snowball’s favorite songs and recording his ability to match the new tempo.

I decided to weigh in after reading a post at Why Evolution Is True in which Dr. Jerry Coyne radically misinterpreted the significance of this study. Since multiple attempts to comment directly to his post have failed for unknown reasons, I thought I would set the record straight here for my relatively minuscule readership.

Coyne wrote:

In his various works, Darwin always thought that the roots of many human behaviors and emotions lay in our relatives. So, for example, the rudiments of human morality could be seen in the social behaviors of our primate relatives. But until now nobody has seen any animal with behavior indicating a predisposition to produce or respond to music. [emphasis mine]

Whaaa?? That’s a wildly inaccurate statement, and definitely not what the study is about. The first sentence of the article’s summary states:

The tendency to move in rhythmic synchrony with a musical beat (e.g., via head bobbing, foot tapping, or dance) is a human universal…yet is not commonly observed in other species.

How does someone with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Harvard get “nobody has seen any animal with behavior indicating a predisposition to produce or respond to music” out of “rhythmic synchrony with a musical beat…is not commonly observed in other species”? I guess Dr. Coyne is unfamiliar with the field of zoomusicology.

The issue of whether any of the diverse organized sounds made by other species qualify as music depends on who you ask. As with language, anthropocentrists tend to define music so as to exclude other species, while many scientists use the term more inclusively based on the functional and structural parallels between human music and its nonhuman counterparts. Published research on the musical aspects of sounds produced by other species, particularly birds and whales, is vast and diverse, going back decades. Here’s some introductory reading on zoomusicology:

Leutwyler, Kristin (2001). Exploring the Musical Brain. Scientific American, 22 January 2001.

Gray, Patricia M., Bernie Krause, Jelle Atema, Roger Payne, Carol Krumhansl, and Luis Baptista (2001). The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music. Science 291 (January 5): 52-54. (you’ll need to purchase access or have an online subscription to Science to read this article)

Oh, and Snowball ROCKS!