(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 16, 2007.)
School children across the country start following the annual migration north late each winter, and eagerly await the first arrivals at their classroom hummingbird feeders. The first sighting in each state is a coveted honor that many long for.
Although there are several species of Hummingbirds, the Ruby-throat is possibly the widest known. It’s range is all across the eastern half of the US and up into Canada. It’s migratory escapades are legendary. This tiny little bird, weighing no more than a five cent piece makes two 600 mile trips across the Gulf of Mexico each year. One male with a band was caught recently and he was 9 years old! That means that he's made 16 of these treks in his lifetime!
I had the pleasure recently of attending a lecture and hummingbird banding day here in west Kentucky’s Land Between The Lakes. Bill Hilton Jr. was the speaker and guest of honor. He demonstrated how hummingbirds were banded and graciously answered a multitude of questions. Bill is the founder of rubythroat.org, and manages Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History. He comes to west Kentucky every August and educates people about hummingbirds.
One of the most often asked questions this year was about the hard freeze that most of the eastern US had on Easter weekend, and how the hummingbirds were affected. It is believed that some early nests were lost in the south, and some mature birds further north as well. From what observers were able to tell, it is believed that females that lost nests due to the freeze did recycle their systems and brood again. The only loss here, was that if these females habitually raised two clutches, they only had one this year.
The freeze did affect food sources, but more than likely the birds hunted insects, and visited backyard feeders, until natural nectar sources became available again. The drought that many of us are experiencing probably is not affecting the hummingbirds much at all. Native plants that they favor, tend to be able to survive and bloom in harsh conditions.
Bill also went on to say that the hurricanes Katrina and Rita were probably one of the most devastating events to affect not only hummingbirds, but migratory birds in general. Vegetation was completely destroyed all along the coast where the hummingbirds rested and put on fat for their 600 mile journey across the Gulf of Mexico. Many were lost over the gulf as they had no reserves to sustain them on the migration.
Hummingbirds rest and build reserves of fat all along the coast in preparation for their journey. They need proteins and fat to gain this weight. Sugar water and nectar alone will not build fat, it only gives them quick energy to hunt the insects that they need to build body mass. By the time they migrate, Ruby-throat hummingbirds will have nearly doubled their weight. These reserves are used in the twenty hour non-stop flight to their winter feeding grounds in Central America. Many people do not know that hummingbirds have a diet other than nectar. It is important to restrict the use of pesticides in habitats where you want to attract hummingbirds because, ‘a’ you are killing a potential food source when you spray, and ‘b’ the nectar in the flowers gets contaminated with the residue. The hummingbirds drink the nectar, so you are in effect poisoning the birds.
Bill suggests the best way to attract hummingbirds is a complete Hummingbird Habitat, rather than a Hummingbird Garden. There should be several different nectar sources, safe shelter, nesting areas, water, and solid food. For solid food, he suggests cultivating a healthy population of fruit flies. It seems that the birds love them. A few melon rinds, bananas, or rotten apples stashed in an out of the way area and kept moist, should do the trick.
Hummingbirds will change their preference of food sources throughout the season, so several choices should be offered. Depending on the time of year, different nectar plants will be used. That is why they sometimes will refuse to visit nectar plants and prefer feeders. A wide variety of natives are best for attracting hummingbirds. The flowers do not have to be red. Hummingbirds are attracted to many bright colors. Or, to make your own hummingbird food, simply combine 1 part white sugar to 4 parts hot water. Nothing else is necessary. Use no food coloring or alternate sweeteners. This simple recipe for home made hummingbird nectar is all that you need.
Bill reccomends native plants instead of the popular and colorful hybrid selections though. The hybrids have been bred for their appeal to human viewers, and little is known about their nectar and it’s quality. The birds seem to prefer natives when available, so for the best hummingbird habitat, it’s best to go with what they like.
Attracting hummingbirds to your garden is sometimes a challenge, and sometimes quite frustrating to the home owner. They’re fickle and quite unpredictable, leading the gardener on a never ending quest for the Holy Grail of hummingbird plants. They squabble among themselves, and a few can be downright bullies. Their airborne kamikaze dives delight us. Their migration journey amazes us. We eagerly anticipate their arrival each spring, and mourn their departure in the fall. Hummingbirds are bright jewels that grace our lives each summer, and if we want to enjoy them at their best, we should give them the best habitat possible. We should keep our gardens bright and inviting with native plants. Our hummingbird feeders should be filled with the proper nectar and kept squeaky clean. Offer them shelter, insects and a water source. They will reward you with their delightful antics.