Phil Hardy: Hummingbird season is here; tips and pointers
It’s summer which means the chances of seeing more Ruby-throated Hummingbirds around your yard are excellent. If you are a hummingbird enthusiast, like I am, this is great news! Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spend our winter months in Central America. I first noticed returning males in my yard during March with females following a few days later. And something I didn’t know until recently is that upon arrival on their breeding grounds, the female begins nest building almost immediately. Their minuscule nests are about the size of a walnut and constructed from small lichens, plant down such as thistle, dandelion and cattail, and held together with lots of spider webs. Several years ago I observed a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird make several trips from her nest to a wetland area at the Jimmy Carter Plant Materials Center in Americus gathering the cottony fluff from cattail seed heads.
The female of this species has the burden of building the nest, laying the eggs and raising the (usually) two chicks all by her lonesome. The male is of no use to her whatsoever except to fertilize the eggs. Once mated his job is complete. And Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have two broods annually with three broods not unheard of.
Feeding of the nestlings is by regurgitation with the female pumping directly into the chick’s mouth. Young birds gape (open their mouths) when they sense air movement from their mother’s wings or hear her soft calls. After day two chicks are able to defecate over the rim of the nest and at 15-days-old small insects are fed.
One reason I enjoy hummingbirds so much is they are packed with energy. Weighing just slightly more than a penny these remarkable birds are capable of non-stop, sustained flight across the Gulf of Mexico during migration. They have the ability to remember which individual flower blooms they last visited and how long it takes that particular flower to regenerate its nectar thus eliminating a wasted trip to a bloom to feed. Through banding Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, they have been known to memorize migratory paths including exactly where sugar water feeders are located at different homes and gardens along the way. The late Bob Sargent of Alabama documented the same individual hummingbird arriving in his yard during migration on exactly the same day each year.
In the wild Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have lived to nine years, according to Birds of North America online. They can lower their body temperature and heart rate at night, similar to hibernation, through a process known as torpor. This event saves precious energy for this diminutive, energetic species.
With hot temperatures here it is imperative, if you feed hummingbirds, to keep the feeders spotlessly clean. Granulated sugar, dissolved in water at a ratio of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, is all that is needed to satisfy and attract these flying jewels. DO NOT purchase the pre-mixed hummingbird food offered by many stores locally with the red dye. The dye has actually been shown to be unhealthy to hummingbirds. Besides, the sugar water doesn’t need to be colored. Usually hummingbird feeders are colored red to make them more attractive and conspicuous to the birds.
Just the other day an acquaintance told me he had heard from a family member that they had discovered a way to attract more hummingbirds. Curious, I inquired as to what the secret was. His answer was to add a tablespoon or two of honey to the sugar water solution. PLEASE DON’T DO THIS. It is a death sentence for hummingbirds. You see, honey is a by-product of nectar regurgitation and evaporation by honey bees. Honey, exposed to our elevated summertime temperatures, can quickly cause deadly bacteria to develop in the sugar water solution you feed your hummingbirds. So please, only feed sugar water in your feeders with no red dye and no honey.
Another trick I sometimes employ is to put an over-ripe banana near my sugar water feeders. The banana will attract gnats which hummingbirds feed voraciously on. Yes I know; we need more hummingbirds in Southwest Georgia during the gnat months.
Grab a glass of iced tea and your chair. Be sure to sit in the shade and get a good view of your hummingbird plants or feeders. Enjoy the antics of our smallest birds as they busily feed this summer. I guarantee they will bring a smile to your face. If not, you may need someone to check your pulse and other vitals for signs of life.
Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.