Why hummingbirds as pets? A discussion on what makes a hummingbirds an excellent choices for a pet, even though they are illegal to keep.
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Let me clarify at the start that my interest (as yet unfulfilled) in keeping hummingbirds has nothing to do with having them as pets. Rather, I've always dreamed of maintaining a private facility dedicated to breeding them with the intention of giving the offspring to zoos. Even further, I'd hoped to become involved with the breeding of birds in zoos across the nation to insure that the greatest possible genetic diversity is obtained in the fledglings. In this way I hoped to reduce the need for importing new birds out of their natural environment. Having said this, I also think that they might have as great a potential as pets, and perhaps greater than most, as any other currently kept bird species.
From what I've read in Mobbs and Scheithauer, and my own extremely limited experiences, hummingbirds have many characteristics that suggest this is the case.
Both Mobbs and Scheithauer report that hummingbirds form close bonds with people. The descriptions of the bird's actions closely resemble those of cat's.
Because of their ability to hover, hummingbirds are unique in the avian world for being able to exercise their wings in small cages. Mobbs reported that his birds were completely comfortable in 40-inch long by 20 x 20 inch cages. Scheithauer states that a cage 48 inches long by 30 inches high by 15 deep was sufficient for two or three compatible birds.
Scheithauer appears to have solved all of the dietary problems associated with hummingbirds without having to breed thousands of fruit flies every day. In spite of the fact that he used honey in his feed, which has been associated with increased incidence of the tongue disease candidiasis, his birds remained healthy for years and many raised broods to adults. (In an email from Mobbs I was informed that this might not be the case.) His solution was to carefully detail the feeding habits of several species of hummingbirds and in so doing, discover the daily carbohydrate, water, protein, fat, and roughage requirements in terms of a given bird's body weight. He then discovered a convenient, non-souring preparation (a powdered baby food called Nektar-Mil II, made by the Milupa-Pauly Company, GmbH, Friedrischsdorf Ts, West Germany) that could be mixed with water and honey to provide his birds with all their nutritional needs. His final formulation was: 800 grams water, 121 grams honey, and 38 grams of Nektar-Mil. The Nektar-Mil provides 6 grams of protein, 5.9 grams of fat, 4.6 grams of high carbohydrates, and 2.9 grams of mineral, vitamins, and roughage.
All four of the US zoos I contacted feed their birds a diet of Neckar Plus by Nekton, USA. It's a sugar solution with protein supplement. They also raise fruitflies, in some cases flies bred without wings to better control them, and release them into the aviaries. Additionally, the birds feed on a wide variety of small insects that naturally occur in the aviaries. There is a second commercial hummingbird food available from the Roudybush company, but no one seems to use it.
Hummingbirds are extremely intelligent, curious, and have good memories. All of these are the result of the birds having to constantly forage for nourishment in an environment where nectar sources are constantly changing. These conditions led to a bird whose best survival strategy was not a genetic hard-wiring for one particular food, but an adaptable, curious intelligence to help them exploit everything in their territory for food. This active inquisitiveness means that, like cats, they can be intriguing, engaging pets. Their intelligence places a responsibility on anyone so lucky as to have one as a pet, something which is almost totally illegal in the US. Anyone having such an animal for a companion must provide constant mental stimulation by spending time interacting with it and varying its surroundings to present interesting challenges to keep it entertained.
Because of their unequaled flying capabilities, hummingbirds have a natural fearlessness. They are cautious, to be sure, but are quick to decide that they have nothing to fear from slow-moving humans. For this reason they should quickly adapt to living around people. I have managed to get a wild Anna's hummingbird to sit on my finger simply by patiently holding it near a feeder. Any other wild bird would fly away in panic. But, the hummingbird quickly evaluated the situation, decided there is nothing to fear, and used my finger as a perch while it drank. Each time it did so, it grew more relaxed in my presence.
My efforts to legally obtain hummingbirds.
Mobbs, in Great Britain in the early 1980s, and Scheithauer, in Germany in the early 1960s, managed to obtain hundreds of birds for their collections. Spurred on by their success, I decided to try and start my own collection. The results were less than satisfying.
My first attempt took place in 1979. According to a US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) agent I spoke to, only twenty hummingbirds were classed as migratory birds at that time and protected. Any of the remaining varieties could be legally imported. After contacting every exotic bird importer I could find, I was eventually referred to an individual who said he could obtain an unspecified number of unknowns hummingbirds in six months for $5,000... half down in advance. Although my passion for these birds was great, it was not so great as to gamble so much money on so nebulous a venture. I declined.
It would seem the Mobbs and Scheithauer had greater access to importers than we had here in the US. They regularly speak of birds coming up for sale on "lists." It sounded like they were so common, common for exotics anyway, that prospective owners had the ability to pick and chose at will.
In 1996 I decided to try again. This time I had the resource of the Internet to help find an importer. What I didn't realize was that since 1979 the US had signed many international species protection agreements, like the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, which makes importing and keeping hummingbirds illegal.
To date, my experience with captive hummingbirds has been limited to one short experiment. In 1982, I received written permission from the USFWS to capture a native Calypte Anna for a short period of time to record it's behavior as it adjusted to captivity. The capture was accomplished in a wire cage fitted with a feeder and a trap door. When the bird entered to feed, the door was released, trapping the bird without having to physically touch the bird. The bird spent much of its flying time with its head pressed against the cage's roof. Assuming this behavior is typical, anyone legally obtaining a hummingbird unfamiliar with captivity might want to consider providing it's cage, if one is used instead of the preferred aviary, with a smooth top so that the bird does not injure its head. Other than exhibiting this behavior in flight, the bird perched and fed apparently at ease. Having obtained the information I was looking for, I released the bird after less than one hour of captivity. The hummingbird was in no way harmed and continued to feed at my feeders for many more months.
My experiences raising thousands of fruit flies
While hopefully searching for a source of Hummingbirds in 1979, I began experimenting with techniques of growing fruit flies. It turns out growing fruit flies is easy. But, controlling them is another matter, especially since great quantities would be required (a single hummingbird can eat over 600 fruit flies a day). There were also problems with mold destroying cultures and inbreeding.
How do you make a fruit fly go where you want it? You don't. Like cats, they always do what you don't want them to. Instead, you have to humble yourself and go where they want: up and towards the light. I grew my cultures in quart-sized mason jars with funnels pointing upwards on their tops. The fruit flies natural tendency to move upward concentrated them in the top neck of the funnel. A plastic cylinder quickly slipped over the top could be used to collect a convenient number of flies before the funnel was recapped. The cylinder of flies could then be corked for later use.
I had problems with mold attacking fruit fly cultures. The solution was to start the culture with sterile food. The easiest source of this was baby food. One small jar was the perfect amount of one culture capable of producing several hundred fruit flies. Any more food and much of it was wasted. Less, and it tended to dry out before the culture matured. The best food I found was mashed bananas with tapioca.
For some time I used some of the flies from one culture to start the next, and so on. After six generations I notices that I high percentage of flies had no wings and all of the flies appeared small. Weighing disclosed that while the flies used to start the original cultures weighed in at a healthy 1.2 mg per fly, after six generations the average weight had fallen to 0.7 mg. What this told me was that to maintain health fruit fly cultures they must be supplied with new flies from the wild on a regular basis. I obtained mine from a dumpster outside a school cafeteria.
A funny, but true, fruit fly story
To measure the mass of the fruit flies, I grew five thousand of them, froze them, then weighed them using the precision scale in my university's physics laboratory. One day as I was doing this, a lab technician came over and inquired what I was doing. I explained, leaving out the fact that the flies were quite dead, and after a brief grimace of incredulity he became interested and watched the proceedings. After I was done, I set the 5000 fruit flies down in front of him, looked at them intently for a moment, then, in a calm, serious voice said, "I hope they don't wake up right now." His eyes widened at the thought of having 5000 live fruit flies flying around his lab equipment and he quickly backed away. I collected the flies and left, forgetting to explain that he had nothing to fear. Odd thing, after that incident they staff began keeping the door to the equipment room locked. I suspect they were afraid of my flies getting loose.
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