Rita Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Migrating hummers cause for celebration

Activity has picked up lately among the inhabitants of my back porch. The dogs aren’t any more energetic. The cat certainly hasn’t been motivated to do much besides stretch and go back to sleep.

It’s the hummingbirds. As usual, they are sucking sugar water and fighting each other in an escalating frenzy that will culminate with a 500-mile non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico in about another month.

Six or seven have spent the summer in my yard.

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But that’s nothing compared to what Rupert and I saw near Holly Springs recently.

At the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center’s Hummingbird Migration Celebration (September 5-7), there were hundreds of the little critters–buzzing, squeaking, darting, drinking.

It’s hummer heaven.

The nice folks at the center have installed native plants in their favorite colors and flavors. Blooming right now are salvia and a Texas native, sultan’s cap.  Also the Audubon staff members have hung a dozen industrial-sized glass feeders containing homemade nectar. The hummingbird garden is located right outside the sunroom in what’s known as the Davis house, a large brick antebellum home that has been restored and is the centerpiece of the 2,500 acres of land donated to Audubon by two sisters, Ruth Finley and Margaret Finley Shackleford in 1998. Ruth and Margaret were descendants of Eben Davis who established a cotton plantation on the property in 1848.

Visitors in the Davis house can take a seat in the row of chairs lined up in front of the sunroom window. The show is nonstop. What appeared to me to be several hundred little birds were flitting about, alternating between the home brew and the flowers.

Staff member Kristin Lamberson told me later that they go through 40 pounds of sugar a week. Just because the festival is over doesn’t mean the hummers have stopped flocking to the center. They’re still filling those super-sized feeders twice a day.

“We actually have more birds now than we did during the celebration,” center director Bubba Hubbard said last Friday.

One component of the three-day festival is banding of the tiny birds for a research study. A special cage is set up with a feeder full of enticing nectar inside. Once a few birds are inside, one of the researchers pulls a string to close the door. The birds are carefully caught, and each is fitted with a tiny metal loop around one leg. Information is inscribed on the band to describe the location and the date. Information about each bird ––the weight, sex, age–is noted and then comes the fun part. Children stand in line for the privilege of releasing the banded bird. Bander Bob Sargent places the somewhat addled hummer into the open palm of a waiting youngster. After a few seconds, the bird realizes is it no longer captive and buzzes off in the direction of the garden.

Sargent and his crew banded 282 birds over the three days. They even recaptured one that wore a band placed on its leg there in 2006.

Bubba Hubbard told me they could have banded a thousand birds, but they were more interested in educating people than banding birds non-stop.

Hubbard reported attendance at the celebration was 8,100 human beings. The birds wouldn’t sit still to be counted.

The Strawberry Plains Audubon Center is headquarters for the Mississippi Audubon Society. The center is open from February through November. For information, call 662-252-1155.