Hummingbird Haven

Jesse Hendrix has a lot of hungry feathered friends

For Jesse Hendrix, it all started when he and his daughter saw a hummingbird in his yard almost 20 years ago.

He bought a hummingbird feeder, filled it up, and the next day, he saw two hummingbirds flying around his trees.

"The more hummingbirds came by, the more feeders I put out," Hendrix says. "The more feeders I put out, the more hummingbirds came by."

One thing led to another, and now more hummingbirds feed at Hendrix's home--located just a few miles north of the Mexican border--than any other part of the United States, according to some researchers.

On this May afternoon, a steady stream of hungry hummingbirds flit around the windows of Hendrix's porch, perching briefly to feed before zooming back into the sky. The 78-year-old retired schoolteacher has 29 feeders scattered in the trees around his house right now, but when the busy season comes later this summer, he'll put out 150 feeders every day.

The job will keep him busy all day long, beginning as early as 4 a.m., because the birds expect their breakfast by 5:30.

Hendrix scoops sugar from a one of four big, plastic bins into containers of warm water to make his mix. He even color-codes the food, so he can see whether the feeders are empty and track the age of the food.

During a three-week peak in late August and early September, Hendrix will feed between 10,000 and 12,000 birds daily, based on the amount of sugar water he puts out. He carefully tracks how much food he puts out each day; UA researchers estimate that each bird consumes 5.16 grams of sugar water.

Many of the birds stop by Hendrix's property as they travel a migratory path. Some will fly as far north as Alaska and as far south as Guadalajara.

The hummingbirds have drawn a lot of two-legged visitors. Hendrix and his hummingbirds have been the subject of magazine articles and TV documentaries, including one made by England's BBC. He's worked with researchers from the UA and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, as well as others from around the United States and Canada, who stop by to capture, measure and band some of the birds. Hummingbirds are so small and elusive that many of their habits remain a mystery.

Bird watchers from far-flung places such as Europe, Japan, Australia and India also flock to his home. The most he's ever had at one time? "We stopped counting after it got to 110," he says.

The visitors often bring new feeders, bags of sugar and even hummingbird knickknacks. The hospitable Hendrix welcomes them all, though he advises them to call ahead to get directions to his place, located off Route 82 between Nogales and Patagonia. And he reminds them he doesn't provide restroom facilities. "They should stop at McDonald's beforehand," he says.

The only unwelcome visitors are Africanized bees and nectar-eating bats.

"The bees get so numerous that they start stinging me and coming in the house," he says.

Hendrix has learned to spray the bottom of the feeders with cooking oil, which the bees don't much like. When larger numbers of bees turn up, he puts out a few jars of sugar water, which attracts the bees. Hendrix says thousands of them drown in the water but, he adds, "I guess there's thousands more left."

To avoid trouble from nectar-eating bats, he has to take down all the feeders at night, hang them on a couple of sets of wire and cover them with a dropcloth.

Hendrix never had much interest in hummingbirds before he put up that first feeder, but he's come to be utterly fascinated by his feathered friends.

"I enjoy it thoroughly," Hendrix says. "It keeps me relaxed and keeps me busy."