My father’s failed quest

By Tom Poland

Dad had a saying. “I won’t let it whip me.” He prevailed over stubborn bolts, obstinate lawn mowers, welding projects, and just about anything that crossed his path, except one small, elusive critter. Hummingbirds. Oh he had no problem finding them. They came to Mom’s feeders in swarms. What finally whipped Dad?

He could never find a hummingbird nest.

Memories of the old homeplace in spring and summer run thick with camellias, roses, lilies, magnolia blossoms, gardenias, and hummingbirds. Flowers need hummingbirds, and hummingbirds need flowers. It’s a pollinator thing. And Dad had a Poland thing. He searched high and low for the difficult-to-find hummingbird nest. No success.

I know of no one who has found a hummer’s nest. I read in Birds & Blooms what I already knew to be true. “Like a crown jewel, a hummingbird nest is one of the great wonders in all of nature. They are so tiny, so perfect. Yet, few of us have ever seen a hummingbird nest. This is because they are nearly impossible to find. From the ground, they look like another bump on a branch. From above, an umbrella of leaves conceals them. And from the side, they look like a tiny knot, quilted with lichens, plant down and fibers.”

Anyone who feeds hummingbirds and watches their antics, dogfights, and squeaky, chattering flights knows that following them to the nest isn’t likely. They dart away like jets and lose themselves among trees and limbs at once. 

Back in Dad’s day he had no Google to consult, but we do, and here are a few tips to help any of you who want to pick up the gauntlet and find “one of the great wonders of nature.” Female hummers build their nests 10 to 90 feet high. I’ve heard their small nests described as a bit like a small sack. Construction materials include plant fibers, leaves and twigs and something exotic, spider silk, which binds the nest together and anchors it to forks in trees and shrubs. 

Be aware that hummingbirds tend to place their nests on thinner branches roughly one foot from tree trunks, more often than not at a fork. The nest is built in such a way it stretches, a good thing as the young grow. The male, by the way, has no say in nest construction. 

The species we see most in Georgialina is the ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris. The females like small twigs and branches that slant downward. You’ll find the nest hard to spot since the female covers the outside with greenish-gray lichens. Sounds a bit like a hunter’s camouflaged blind. And blind is right. Most of us never see a hummingbird nest. Dad sure didn’t. And I don’t plan to have a similar quest. It’s just too difficult. Why so difficult? Consider the nest’s size. It’s just a tad over an inch wide. I might as well be looking for a green walnut high in a tree. 

Sometimes hummers will nest on a roof or chain-link fence, though I’ve never heard of anyone who witnessed that. If though, through some miracle, you come across this holy grail, don’t touch it. I saw report after report warning people not to touch, relocate, or remove an active nest. It’s against the law in the United States. Check it out from a distance with some good binoculars. 

I gave my parents a large book about hummingbirds back in the 1980s. It must have discussed the difficulty of finding a nest. Something put Dad on his quest, and my guess is it was that book plus his curiosity about the world around him. Were I to follow in Dad’s steps, I’d be more curious about seeing the eggs. They’re the size of jellybeans, and when they hatch they bless us with bejeweled, precision flying machines, but finding their nests? Good luck. 

Author: Stephan Drew

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