By: Linda May
In late summer and early fall, ruby-throated hummingbirds are migrating south even as orb weaver spiders are increasing in size and becoming more noticeable. While hummingbirds regularly eat spiders and use spider silk to build their nests, never in a million years did I expect to witness the tables turned between these two creatures!
On Sept. 16, my husband Chris and I came home from shopping a little after 10 p.m. Since the raccoon that lives in the woods behind our house often tries to raid our birdseed, I went to the back deck to bring in the feeder. However, as I turned on the deck light, I was distracted by something large in the spotted orb weaver web outside our kitchen window.
Chris and I recently have enjoyed watching the spider construct its large circular net and capture its prey, but this sight was horrifying – a hummingbird was hanging upside down in the sticky web! For a few moments, we stared in disbelief at what appeared to be a dead bird, but then the bird flinched! Amazingly, despite hanging upside down for several hours without food and possibly sustaining spider bites, the hummingbird was alive.
We rushed to help the little guy. Chris grabbed a ladder and a long pole with a net, scooped the hummingbird out of the web from the second-story window and handed it to me on the deck. The few iridescent red gorget feathers on the bird’s throat told me it was a juvenile male ruby-throat, one that likely hatched farther north last spring.
After sustaining quite a head-rush, the hummingbird must have felt relieved to be upright in my hand. However, he was weak and his breathing seemed labored, so I knew he needed refueling quickly.
Fortunately, since I keep hummingbird feeders outside, I already had some fresh sugar water (one part sugar dissolved in four parts water) prepared in my refrigerator. I poured it in a small nectar feeder and coaxed the frail hummer to drink.
The sugar water revived the hummingbird fairly quickly, and he regained enough strength to sit upright and perch but not to fly. That allowed me time to check for any fractures or other injuries. At first, he seemed unable to stretch out his right wing, but that was because it was stuck to his tail feathers by some incredibly strong spider silk! I feared his feet were injured, too, but after gently removing more spider silk, full movement returned.
Now the main concern was to restore the hummingbird’s energy so he could continue on his migration journey. We offered more sugar water, which he vigorously sipped. Once he got his fill, I placed him on a perch in a small animal carrier in a dark, quiet bathroom to calm down and sleep overnight.
The next morning, we were glad to see the hummingbird still doing well. He appeared stronger following a good night’s rest, and after more sugar water, he started to fly. To better test his flight ability, we moved the hummingbird from the carrier in our bathroom to a screened-in hammock on our deck. It was then that I noticed his tail feathers weren’t splaying properly, which caused him to fly backwards. Once again, spider silk removal was in order.
A few trials later, the hummingbird appeared to be fully able to fly, steer and sip from the feeder. I considered that he might need to regain a little more strength for the long trek ahead, but that would best be done in the wild where he could exercise his wings well and get food from natural sources – so it was time to let him go.
For one last time, I held the little ruby-throat my hand as I took him out of the screened-in hammock to the deck. Just before release, another hummingbird came to one of my feeders and seemed to beckon the little guy on with his buzzing wings and chirps. Immediately as I opened my hand, the juvenile male sped high into the treetops. After perching on a bare branch for a moment to preen his feathers, he flew away to continue his voyage southward.
He may have to contend with storms, exhaustion and other predators along the way, but hopefully he now knows to avoid large spider webs!
(And about the spotted orb weaver spider – she was not injured in this incident. The next day, we saw her capture, wrap and suck the fluids out of a large praying mantis – so that’s one less hummingbird predator out there!)
Linda May is environmental outreach coordinator for the DNR Nongame Conservation Section. May has experience as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and was permitted to help the hummingbird under state law. If you find a seriously hurt animal, contact a licensed rehabilitator (list available online or through the DNR Law Enforcement Division’s Special Permit Unit, 770-761-3044). More details at www.georgiawildlife.com/InjuredOrphanedWildlife.