Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at an Aspects Humzinger feeder.
One exciting way to enjoy the upcoming fall migration is by supercharging your yard and feeding station for hummingbirds. The hummingbird nesting season is pretty much complete, and you may already have noticed increased activity in your yard. As migration kicks-in, hummer numbers at your feeders will increase as the hungry birds prepare for their journey south. Migrating is an energy-intensive activity and hummingbirds must bolster fat reserves to fuel their migration flights. Adding an additional feeder or two and providing natural food sources will benefit the birds and provide some fun high-speed entertainment when hummingbirds flock to your yard.
We have 15 species of regularly observed hummingbirds in the United States, but most of those species are limited to a small area of southeast Arizona. For instance, at Tucson Audubon’s Patton Center for Hummingbirds, more than a dozen species have been recorded at their feeders. Birders in California can attract Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds regularly, and they may entice a migrating Rufous Hummingbird during spring or fall migrations. Birders in the eastern half of the United States certainly appreciate our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, but we can attract dozens of birds at a time in some locations. Then again, a single hummingbird at your feeder is exciting enough for many of us.
Hummingbird migration is a wonder. Hummers weigh about as much as a nickel, yet some migrate thousands of miles from nesting ranges in Canada and the United States to wintering areas in southern Mexico and Central America. Rufous Hummingbirds, for example, nest as far north as coastal Alaska and winter as far south as southern Mexico. Ruby-throats migrate south and follow the coast of the Gulf of Mexico on their way to wintering areas in southern Mexico and Central America.
Studies indicate that hummingbirds may double their weight as they pack on high-energy fat for the trip. You can help! Creating a feeding station for hummingbirds is simple, but it’s also easy to make a mistake that may affect the birds you wish to assist, so here’s a primer for you:
Picking a feeder is the first step. Feeder selection is both fun and challenging, because there are lots of options. Most experts consider the ability to easily and thoroughly clean a feeder is the most important attribute of a given model. Hummingbird feeders will be filled with sugar water and placed in warm weather. The feeding solution can go bad quickly and it’s important to clean the feeder as often as every day or every other day during hot weather. So, plan ahead and pick a feeder that is easily taken apart for cleaning by hand or that is dishwasher safe.
In my humble experience, some of the most elaborate, flashy feeders are the hardest to clean. Unless you have extraordinary numbers of hummers, choose a feeder with modest capacity, maybe a cup or two of sugar water. This way you’ll reduce the chances of nectar going bad.
Staff at wild bird retail stores can be very helpful when shopping for the right feeder. Several feeder manufacturers produce high-quality products that are reliable. In Jim Carpenter’s book The Joy of Bird Feeding, he lists more than a dozen feeder attributes that will enhance your experience and keep hummers safe.
Once you have your feeder, now you have to fill it! Virtually all experts recommend a solution of four parts water to one part white table sugar. Boil the water and add the sugar, stirring until it’s dissolved. I often make up more sugar water than needed and refrigerate the extra. Experts recommend not to use honey, organic sugars, or any color additive. White sugar is the only real option. What you are trying to do is replicate the natural sugar-water nectar that plants produce naturally, and 1 to 4 sugar to water solution is the best nectar option.
Hang your feeder where you can see it so you can study and enjoy the birds. Feeders that attach to windows with suction cups provide some exciting, close-up viewing. You might find hummingbird feeding a little addictive and feel the need to add more feeders. That’s okay! In our yard we start with two feeders in early summer and increase to six by August to accommodate the large numbers of Ruby-throats that migrate through our area of South Carolina. I must admit that I get a little competitive and like to see how many hummingbirds I can attract!
This is also a good time of year to start thinking about landscaping to enhance hummingbird habitat. Natural sources of nectar are important and hummingbirds feast on small insects attracted to flowers. You can create hummingbird habitat with the simple addition of potted plants placed near your feeders or you can add plants and flowering shrubs to your landscaping scheme. Staff at local plant nurseries can offer suggestions for what’s best for your region, and a quick internet search will also produce recommendations suited to your area. But remember, hummingbirds prefer red flowers, because red flowers produce the highest sugar concentrations in their nectar, followed by orange and yellow flowers.
Half the fun of having hummers in your yard is getting to know these intriguing birds better. Did you know that hummers lick, rather than suck nectar? One of our feeders has a clear base, and when a hummingbird sticks its tongue into the sugar water, we can see it moving rapidly in and out of the solution.
Experts note that it only takes about 20 minutes for nectar to pass through the hummingbird’s digestive system. Not only is that really efficient, but it also means that individual birds will return to your feeder repeatedly and often during the day.
Hummingbirds are entertaining. They are highly social, quite vocal, and they can be very aggressive. Last evening, while enjoying dinner outside, we watched a pair engaged in a high-speed chase through the branches of a big pine tree. All I could think of was the scene in the Return of the Jedi where Luke and Leia jump on their speeders and lead the scout troopers on a wild chase through the forest!
It’s not unusual to have hummingbirds, particularly young birds, come very close to investigate red or yellow colors on your clothing. My wife had one hover not two feet from her face recently, apparently drawn to the bright red cup in her hands.
The dive displays performed by our Ruby-throats are also thrilling. In this behavior, one bird will fly high and then dive intensely down toward another perched bird, loop back up, and repeat it time and time again. Sometimes males dive to attract females and sometimes to drive off a rival.
The highlight of my backyard birding year is when the Ruby-throats return each spring and the saddest time is when the fall cool-weather fronts take them away from us. Make hummingbirds a focus of your backyard habitat and you’ll have guaranteed entertainment.
Article by Peter Stangel
For more information, contact The Hummingbird Society: https://hummingbirdsociety.org, and refer to The Joy of Bird Feeding at: https://scottandnix.com/products/copy-of-american-birding-association-field-guide-to-birds-of-arizona-1 and A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America at https://www.hmhco.com/shop/books/A-Peterson-Field-Guide-to-Hummingbirds-of-North-America/9780618024964, and Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Hummingbirds https://littlebrown.com/titles/donald-stokes/stokes-beginners-guide-to-hummingbirds/9780316816953/
Feeder Manufacturers include: Aspects (https://aspectsinc.com), Droll Yankees (https://drollyankees.com), Duncraft (https://duncraft.com) and Perky Pet (https://perkypet.com).
Wild Bird Retail Stores include: Wild Bird Centers (https://wildbird.com) and Wild Birds Unlimited (https://wbu.com)
Check out The Birding Wire’s CALENDAR for hummingbird festivals and events!