National Geographic : 1947 Aug
Hummingbirds in Action BY HAROLD E. EDGERTON C"T THY don't you take high-speed pic / tures of hummingbirds?" V V Many a visitor to our laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has asked that question. Our stock answer was, "You furnish the birds. We will snap the pictures." Through friends I heard that Mr. and Mrs. Laurence J. Webster of Holderness, New Hampshire, had been training wild ruby throated hummingbirds to become accustomed to the presence of human beings. As a re sult of their untiring patience, the birds had become tame and friendly. Hence, I went with my photographic equip ment to Holderness, and was amazed to find the birds there so tolerant of people. It was a comparatively easy task to make the high-speed photographs, since I could focus the camera on the spots where the birds nor mally fed. Later I learned with deep sorrow of the death of Mrs. Webster. This gentle woman, a bird lover for more than 35 years, was pri marily responsible for taming the scores of hummingbirds which eventually made their home on the Webster property. Third Generation Cares for Colony Chiefly from Mrs. Webster's notes, supple mented by the observations of members of her family, I am able to recount the family's interesting experiences with a hummingbird colony over a period of nearly 20 years. Since Mrs. Webster's passing, Mr. Webster has carried on the work of caring for the birds, aided recently by his granddaughter Mary Fidelia (Plates I and VIII). As early as 1903, Mrs. Webster took up her hobby of feeding wild birds. Many of the stations she set up then have been in con tinuous operation ever since. The most im portant is the one established on an open piazza just outside the Webster living and dining room windows (page 220). At one end is a vine-covered arbor, and at the other a few tall lilacs; low bushes line the front. With a southerly exposure, and pro tected from the prevailing winds, it is an ideal location. Numerous and varied types of feeders have been put out, developed through experience to meet the requirements of the different birds. Millet, hemp, sunflower seed, suet, doughnuts, and chopped raw peanuts are kept here throughout the year, so that every feathered visitor can find something to his taste. In winter pine boughs are woven into the vines and placed under an overhanging win dow to provide protection from enemies as well as weather. Thus at all seasons this piazza is a bird haven. Chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches were the first birds to feed from Mr. and Mrs. Webster's hands. They were so tame that they came to them freely even when they were on horseback or in a canoe on the lake, long distances from home. In recent years the hummingbirds have received most of the attention, although the others have not been neglected. Feeding Bottles Bound to Vines Mrs. Webster's interest in hummingbirds was aroused by an article which appeared nearly 20 years ago in the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE.* After reading it, she placed some vials filled with sweetened water on the vines, and was fortunate in having them discovered almost immediately. Ever since, the hummingbirds have patronized them constantly, and the colony has steadily increased. These bottles were bound to forked branches with adhesive tape, then covered with ribbon and fastened to the vines at an angle con venient for feeding. At first, ribbons of different colors were used to match the birds' favorite flowers. Now the feeding ends of the bottles are of colored glass. Most popular is red. The ideal bottle size is just under an inch in diameter and two inches deep. Once Mrs. Webster used a larger bottle to avoid refilling so often, and a bird slipped in when reaching for the last drops of liquid. He could turn around, but could not use his wings; so he was held prisoner all night. His bill provided an excellent handle for rescue, and after he had been fed a little, he flew away, fortunately unharmed by his trying experience. Visitors Have a Sweet Tooth, Too Squirrels and chipmunks like the sweetened water, as well as bees, wasps, moths, and ants (Plate II); while purple finches, catbirds, Baltimore orioles, hairy and downy wood peckers, white-breasted nuthatches, and myrtle and black-throated blue warblers often come for a drink. * See "Holidays with Humming Birds," by Marga ret L. Bodine, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, June, 1928.