To Build A Nest: Hummingbirds and Elasticity

(In honor of spider strands and tiny birds)

“There is another World, but it is in this one.”  W.B. Yeats
A nest in my yard from a few years back.

A nest in my yard from a few years back.

By Linda McKittrick

(Reprinted with permission from Savor the Southwest.)

Aunt Linda here on a very gusty March morning. Good thing that spiders provide their silky webs to the world, or the tiny nest right outside our door and its contents might have been catapulted into oblivion. The full moon is setting in the West, the direction I am facing as I write. Its white light is being thrown about as it passes through mesquite branches in a still beautifully dark sky. We can practically taste Spring on our tongues here in the Old Pueblo. The ancient call of regeneration is in the air. Plants and pollinators alike are in full swing. Native and non-native bees are at the stone fruit trees; birds are wooing one another with their lyrical mating songs. It is easy to forget the function some birds play in pollination. Pollination by birds has its own name: “ornithophily.” Hummingbirds, orioles, and nectar-seeking birds are but a few types of birds that pollinate native plants, trees, and crops and that animals (including humans) 2

What re-focused me on ornithophily was the hummingbird nest right outside the front door that a female hummer built about nineteen or twenty days ago. Watching her secure the nest was fascinating. For about five days, she brought gathered materials, using beak, chin, wings, and her little bird rump to form and secure the nest inside and out. When she was ready, she laid her first egg. The second was the laid the very next day. Throughout this process, I watched her bring materials such as spider webs to the nest. Intermittently, she would feast on the offerings of tubular flowers as well as upon tiny insects (that move in small, but visible, insect-clouds) high in the air. Her graceful, skillful movements allowed her to move easily among the flowers and to pick insects out of midair.

This whole episode opened my eyes and interest WIDE OPEN. I began researching the hatching time for baby hummers, which is approximately fifteen to sixteen days. I stayed well away from the nest. Until yesterday, day sixteen. When she left to forage, I carefully approached the nest, skillfully built higher than many a predator can reach and higher than my eye level. Careful not to touch the nest or any leaves around it, I held my camera higher than the nest, and saw via photo that the first baby bird had hatched. (Note: It is not because of the birds “sense of smell” that I am careful not to touch around the nest and leave a scent, but because of predators!)

A nest under construction near my front door.

A nest under construction near my front door.

Anatomy of a Nest

I have been studying up on hummingbird nests. The bottom and the wind side of the nest are often thicker than the downwind side. The thinner sides allow for breezes to pass though on warmer days, when cooling is needed. Interestingly, hummingbird nests built in the earlier and cooler springtime are thicker and deeper than those built in the warmer summer months. She camouflages the outside of the nest with materials from the immediate environment. Here in Tucson, many hummingbird nests have tiny mesquite leaves and strips of bark from native trees. The insides are made soft with gathered materials – over the years I have seen in this yard alone nests made from cotton swiped from cotton plants that we had hung on the porch from the winter, wool from a mask made of sheep hair, stuffing gathered from outdoor furniture that had seen better days. You can clearly see in these photos the innovative use of spider webs in nest construction. She uses them to secure the base, as well as to build the capacity for elasticity into the nest – so it remains intact even as the babies grow.

Usually, a female hummingbird will build and fasten the nest onto the part of a tree or bush where branches overlap, crossing each other or making a “Y”  for stability. This is so the eggs or baby birds do not get catapulted off in one of springtime’s storms or gusty winds like we have had here over the past few days. Note in the photo above how the spider webs are woven into the nest, as well as how they fasten it to the base branches. I have read that hummers will actually test and retest the site by repeatedly landing on it to see how it will hold. This skillful construction has helped the nest stay secure during the past few days of wind, whereas this little egg (a robin egg perhaps?) did not fare so well. The broken egg photo was taken a three minute walk from the hummer nest. (Note: A reader knowledgeable about birds wrote me to say she thinks the broken eggs are a curve-billed thrasher! Thank you!!!)

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About eighteen years ago, a docent at the Desert Museum shared a story that opened up the way I thought about the interconnectedness of things in nature. After meticulous research into the types of hummingbirds, plants, and their habitat requirements, the Desert Museum built a beautiful state-of-the-art hummingbird sanctuary/exhibit. Once the hummingbirds were introduced, all appeared to be well – they fed and flew contentedly, living the lives hummingbirds do. All appeared fine in hummingbird paradise – except that no nest building was going on.

As you can imagine, this was taken very seriously, and after thorough research, it was discovered that no spiders had been introduced into the ecosystem of the site. When spiders were introduced to the hummer system, and webs were spun and thus available, the hummers began building nests. For me, this is very profound, this deep interconnectedness of spider and baby hummer. It gives practical meaning to the idea of the web of life. It is also quite a gorgeous thing to behold – this gathering of spider webs by agile hummers. The first time I saw it, it was only because the shiny silver strands were backlit by the sun. The female gathered them in her beak with a kind of sweeping motion of her body.

Recipe – Tiny Egg Salad Nests (formally known as Deviled Eggs)

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Like tiny hummer nests in and of themselves, hardboiled egg whites are well built and can hold precious cargo. Packed with protein, eggs are a healthy and tasty treat. Use herbs from your own garden or local surroundings to flavor your tiny nest-snack.

Use your favorite deviled egg recipe; most people have one. In case you have not made them in a while, here is a basic recipe.

6 eggs, hard boiled

4 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons mustard

salt and paprika to taste

Herbs from the garden – I used cilantro, parsley, and pepitas (pumpkin seeds), even chiltepin. If you use tea eggs, you can enjoy the spider web-like pattern motif on the outside of your tiny nest!

I often chop up the egg whites that break as I am preparing them and add them to the deviled egg mixture – it makes it more like a true egg salad within the tiny egg white nest.

Make sure to “weave in” your version of silk silver spider strands of elasticity into whatever you are incubating.

Recipe to Make Your Own Yard/Surrounds Hummer-Friendly:

*Provide nectar by planting their favorite plants (find out what is local to your region). Here in Tucson that includes wild and domestic tubular flowers such as penstemon, a desert wildflower. Hummers likely co-evolved with long, tubular flowering plants (think the length and shape of their beaks and tongues) and move deftly to such crimson red flowers in the herb garden as salvias, trumpet vine, penstemon, ocotillo blossoms, and chuparosa tubes. They are also insect eaters and pick the tiny, only to be seen if back lit insects right out of the air.

*Leave spider webs – and lichen (!) if you live in a region with lichen, for nest building.

* Avoid the use of harmful chemical sprays and poisons on your plants as the hummingbirds do rub up against blooms as they seek nectar and eat insects (for protein).

* Make sure there is a water source for them.

The new hatchling in the nest.

The new hatchling in the nest.

I am happy to share that the nest rode out a very gusty night and morning just fine.

Let’s all send some appreciation to spiders for their webs, even when we might find them a little creepy – and to the skillful nest building of female hummingbirds.

Linda is both an urban and a rural food producer. She ranches in the Sierra Madre foothills in Northern Mexico. She also keeps honeybees and fosters native bee habitat in the urban Southwest. She enjoys raising poultry, with a special fondness for heirloom breeds. She sees herself as an extension of the hives, flocks, and herds among which she lives. A version of this post originally appeared on her blog, Savor the Southwest.

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