DEAR JOAN: We have a small side yard with lots of flowers, a hummingbird feeder, and, our pride, an oriole feeder complete with hooded orioles. We have two questions -- not problems, just questions.
This year for the first time we have house sparrows living somewhere nearby. We resurrected a birdbath for them. They use it a lot, sometimes bathing, as does the occasional towhee, but more often drinking.
They drink lots and lots of water. No other bird does. Why do the sparrows drink so much? Do other birds need less water? Do other birds have some other water source?
We have had Anna's hummingbirds for years, and sometimes a few Rufous. Last year we noticed an Anna's that seemed to have some sort of growth or tumor hanging near its beak.
It survived through the summer, but we have not seen it this year. This year we have another, possibly two, Anna's that have some sort of beak deformity. One has a noticeably thickened beak. He sits on the feeder instead of hovering. The Boss hummingbird tries to drive him away, but Thick Beak is not easily discouraged.
Thick Beak sometimes sits on the oriole feeder and eats the grape jelly. I guess he has trouble making a living the way ordinary hummingbirds do.
What is going on here? Are such hummingbirds common? What is the source of their deformities? Do these hummingbirds manage to mate, do you think?
Rebecca Mary Abrams
DEAR REBECCA AND JOHN: I don't think sparrows require more water than other birds, but it is in their nature to take what is offered, and then some, so they may just be extra greedy about the water and may be keeping other birds away.
Many people consider sparrows to be a scourge. They were introduced in Brooklyn in 1851 and a scant 50 years later had spread all the way to the Rocky Mountains. The birds now are common throughout North America, excluding parts of Canada and Alaska. They are very pushy birds, indeed.
The other birds probably are getting their water from other sources. You may see more diversity at the birdbath as it gets even hotter and natural puddles dry up.
As for your hummers, two ailments are common -- fungal infections and the avian pox virus.
Black, bulbous growths on bills that give the beaks a thickened appearance are usually from a fungal infection. If you have binoculars, you might also be able to observe that the tongue is thick and white instead of narrow and translucent.
Avian pox can look something like tiny cauliflowers growing at the base of the bill or around the eyes, and sometimes under the wings and on the feet and legs.
Sick hummers often will perch on feeders and sit with their feathers puffed out, their eyes closed. The fungus can cause their tongues to swell, making it impossible for them to feed. You can contact a wildlife rescue and rehab group in your area to ask for advice on capturing the bird and bringing him for treatment. Chances are he won't survive long.
To prevent the spread of disease and fungus, make sure to keep your feeders super clean and replace the nectar on a regular basis.