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Blane Klemek column: Spring birds returning to the North Country

I've always maintained that springtime's the best time. And while it's most definitely the case that yours truly derives great pleasure from autumn's magical moments, nothing, in my book, beats Minnesota's annual season of renewal.

On the evening of May 11 while enjoying the last minutes of light on my deck, I observed my first rubythroated hummingbird of the year. It was a beautiful male bird that zigged, and then zagged, to the empty bird feeder pole. I felt a tinge of guilt watching the little fellow search for the sugarwater feeder that wasn't there.

The following morning I prepared a mixture of sugar water and filled one of the hummer feeders and hung it outside on the hooked cast iron pole. While hanging the feeder, I heard the melodious territorial song of a Baltimore oriole. So back in the house I went (no more guilt this time) and proceeded to fill and hang up the oriole feeder, too.

Indeed, every year, come mid-May, if not a little sooner, expect your resident hummingbirds and orioles to come a-knocking for a handout. Always the males making their return trips to the Northland first and ahead of the lagging females, they'll usually do a decent job of letting you know they're home.

It's interesting to me that hummingbirds appear to put two-and-two together when it comes to feeders. Maybe a little more so than orioles, I don't know. Invariably I will notice one or more male hummingbirds searching for missing feeders at the very locations that I had them hanging the previous year.

I often wonder, "Are these birds the returning adults that already have knowledge about the feeders, or are they their offspring that learned about the feeders from their parents after they fledged?" Or, "Have most modern day hummingbirds simply become so accustomed to sugar water feeders that they seek out backyard handouts no matter where their migratory routes lead them?"

Orioles could be similar to hummingbirds in this regard. After all, they seem to consistently show up at backyard feeding stations as well. Whether they're searching for sugar water or jams and jellies and orange slices, it seems these attractive birds realize that human dwellings often equate to reliable food sources, too.

Nonetheless, show up they do, expecting something sweet to eat, before I'm ready, my guilt aside, occasions for atonement.

Few other birds delight me more than observing and feeding ruby-throated hummingbirds. So easy to attract, so remarkable to view and so interesting to learn about, it's no wonder they're on top of the list of those birds most frequently sought after by birders and bird feeding enthusiasts. And why not? What other bird can perform the aerial stunts they do at our feeders? For sure, there's only one.

These incredible birds are blessed with vital statistics like no other bird: less than four inches long, weighing in at a whopping three grams, able to fly up to 60 miles per hour and they can beat their wings up to 80 times per second during normal flight.

At rest, the heart of a hummingbird beats around 200-250 beats per minute. To compare, the human heart beats around 55 to 80 times a minute. More astonishing, while hummingbirds feed, their hearts beat an amazing 1,200 beats per minute!

Even as they feed on nectar or sugar-water, their long tongues can dart in and out at rates of up to 13 licks per second. Behaviorally and physiologically, practically everything a hummingbird does it does rapidly.

A feeding ruby-throat demonstrates command of flight by flying backwards, forwards, and even upside down for short intervals. As well, they can stop at midflight in an instant and hover above a flower while eyeing it for likely nectar openings. Moreover, their pleasant chirping vocalizations and sounds from whirring wings are as pleasurable as their airborne maneuvers.

An oriole, on the other hand, and while no aeronautical performance artist, is undeniably nimbleof-foot as it grasps tree limbs and feeders while hanging nearly upside down foraging on whatnot, or as it builds its unique nest high in the thinly-branched canopies of various deciduous trees, especially elm and aspen.

Belonging to the blackbird family, of which meadowlarks, bobolinks, grackles and cowbirds belong to as well, it's hard to mistake an oriole for any other species of bird. All orioles, especially the males, are colorful arboreal birds.

Adult male orioles are adorned with brightly colored breasts, bellies, and rump patches that contrast sharply with black heads, wings, throats, and, in some species, black backs and tails. Most yearling males are colorful too, although different looking than adults, and sometimes present a unique challenge for birders.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of our oriole, the Baltimore oriole, in addition to other New World species of orioles, is the nests they build - or better written, weave. Baltimore orioles literally weave grasses and other vegetation into elaborate hanging nests resembling pouches. The nests are normally hung from the outermost, thin branches in the tops of mature hardwood trees.

Yes, humming rubythroated hummingbirds and sweet-singing, brightlycolored Baltimore orioles are back in the North Country once again.

Now's the time to mix up your sugar water feeders to one part sugar to three or four parts of water, or slice up some oranges or grapefruit and place them outside, or fill small bowls with fruity jams and jellies to satisfy your returning migrants, guilt free, as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at