(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 6, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
These tiny travelers leave their nesting grounds here in the USA and Canada, and head for the tropics of Central America every fall, spending the winter where nectar and insects are plentiful, only to make the 600 mile non-stop flight again each spring.
So very little is known about their lives and habits, that a few interested conservationists and researchers have decided to study the lives and migration patterns of the hummingbird. Bill Hilton Jr. is one of those people, and most graciously answered my questions recently here in west KY’s Land Between The Lakes, where he was banding hummingbirds, and educating the public on these winged jewels.
“What plants are best for attracting Hummingbirds?”
Hummingbirds like plants native to the areas that they live in. In most parts of North America,Trumpet Creeper is a favorite. Make sure that you have room for this plant to spread, and that you keep it in check. Trumpet Creeper can be invasive if not watched carefully.
Another choice would be the Coral Honeysuckle. This plant is very well behaved, and easier to control in a garden setting. Another favorite is Bee Balm . It attracts a wide range of wildlife…and hummingbirds like the nectar it produces. It is available in several shades of red, pink, purple or white. Hummingbirds like Columbine, Lobelia, and Jewel Weed also. Some non-natives that hummingbirds will feed from include Cypress Vine, Rose of Sharon, Silk Tree or Mimosa, and Scarlet Sage. These are just suggestions for plants that hummingbirds prefer. Most are native somewhere in the hummingbird’s range, and depending on their cultural needs, most can be grown somewhere in North America.
“ Hummingbirds seem to prefer my feeders rather than the plants that I’ve carefully tended just for them”
Even though a plant may be blooming, little is known about the quality of its nectar at different times of the season. There may be subtle differences in the actual cultivars, and what the hummingbirds prefer in the way of taste, or sugar content. It’s actually an unknown area, and although researchers are aware of this preference, they are not sure why they do this. Some years, they seem to prefer the plants over the feeders, and other times, they prefer the feeders over the flowers.
If you are inclined to keep records, Bill would welcome input of your findings at ruby throat.org.
“Where do Ruby-throat hummingbirds go every fall?”
Ruby-throat hummingbirds spend the winter in Central America and southern Mexico. They are not found south of Panama. A large number winter in Costa Rica. They like the drier forests on the western coast. Little is known about their lives there, although they do frequent the large aloe plantations, and love the blooms.
“Do people in Central America and Mexico put up hummingbird feeders?”
As a rule, generally, no. Many of the large resorts have figured it out though….if they put out feeders, they will come in droves….that’s tourists, not hummingbirds. It seems that the hummingbirds are not paying guests, so if some sugar water will bring in hummingbirds, and they in turn, will bring the tourists loaded with dollars, then up the feeders go.
“I’ve seen a strange hummingbird east of the Mississippi River. It wasn’t a Rubythroat. Is it lost?”
As the Great Plains are becoming urbanized, there’s fewer wide open spaces. Gardens are being planted. More feeders are being hung in backyards, and in public green areas. The western species are venturing out of their ranges somewhat, and may appear in gardens, and at feeders in the east.
The Ruby Throat is still the only species that breeds and nests east of the Mississippi River. Several other species have been documented, but they are not permanent residents. It is still valuable information if you have an unknown hummingbird in your garden, many researchers are quite interested. Contact ruby throat.org , and also your fish and wildlife department in your home state. Ask to be put in touch with someone who bands birds. There are only about 100 individuals in North America qualified to band hummingbirds, but they will have this information, and get your sighting in the right hands. If you are able to get a picture of the strange hummingbird, it would help also.
The most likely times that a sighting of an unknown will happen, is in late winter/early spring, or in the late fall after the Ruby Throats have migrated south. If you are diligent enough to maintain a feeder, and keep it clean during those times, you may be rewarded with a sightseeing hummingbird.
The Ruby-throat Hummingbird is a source of inspriation and awe to those who observe it. Bill Hilton Jr. is one of those individuals who delight in passing on his hard-earned tips and knowlege to people who want to aid in hummingbird conservation. We were quite fortunate to have him available to answer these questions, and more. It seems that he happily showered us with so much information, that there was enough material for another article. Stay tuned for the next installment.