Hummingbirds and hummingbird feeders
The radio show I work for is in Mexico this week — and so, with luck, is the little bird at my nifty HummZinger hummingbird feeder in the photo above. The weekend after Labor Day, he was right outside my window.
As I have mentioned before, Amy and I are backyard birding geeks, and we would like to attract as many species as possible. That would certainly include hummingbirds, but we had never seen them in the neighborhoods where we live.
Some people told me that we don’t have hummingbirds in our area, or that they only visit rural settings. However, according to a couple of books I bought (Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies to Your Backyard by Sally Roth and Hummingbird Gardens by Nancy L. Newfield and Barbara Nielsen), it should be quite possible to lure hummingbirds here, at least occasionally.
Among the things I found out:
- In the summer, hummingbirds can be found spread all over the United States and even across the border into Canada. Of the over 300 total species, 15 or more make their way into our country, but in the eastern third of the U.S., the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only species we’re really likely to see.
- Insects make up a large part of a hummingbird’s diet. Another major component is the nectar from flowers.
- Because of this diet, hummingbirds must return south as insects and flowers begin to disappear in northern regions each autumn — unlike, say, sparrows and finches which can get along just fine on seeds. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit Wisconsin can travel a couple of thousand miles twice each year, including a 500-mile leg across the Gulf, on their way to and from Mexico and other tropical homelands.
- Despite all of the potential companions making similar trips at similar times, hummingbirds do not travel in flocks. Each tiny hummingbird journeys alone.
- When do hummingbirds return? Use the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migration map at Hummingbirds.net to see when the first birds are spotted in your area. Hummingbirds.net is a fantastic resource for all sorts of hummingbird information.
- When to put your hummingbird feeders out: Put hummingbird feeders out as early in the year as possible, and keep them out as late in the season as you can. Just pay attention to overnight low temperatures because freezing could damage your feeder.
- Certain flowers are more attractive to hummingbirds, both because of their trumpet-shaped blossoms and because of their red color.
- Hummingbirds are particularly drawn to red, and will even investigate non-floral red objects like a bandana or a bright red sweater.
- Recipe for hummingbird nectar: Nectar for hummingbirds can be made as a simple recipe of four parts water to one part pure white cane sugar (not beet sugar), a solution practically identical to the nectar of flowers.
- A hummingbird can remember the exact location of its favorite flowers or feeders, and will return during subsequent migrations to drink from the same source.
- If a site offers enough in the way of food and shelter, hummingbirds will nest there for the summer to bear their young. They seem to especially like areas on the edge of the woods. Hummingbird nests are very small.
Glass hummingbird feeder
Emboldened by this knowledge, I bought and hung a hummingbird feeder outside our kitchen window on Memorial Day weekend. Within 48 hours, I spotted either an astoundingly large bumblebee or an extremely small bird hovering around the pink, trumpet-shaped blossoms on our backyard weigela shrubs. Sure enough, it soon came around to the new feeder, and it was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, right here in my backyard within the city limits of Racine, Wisconsin. It didn’t hang around more than a day or so, but it had proven the possibility.
As it turned out, I was not happy with the feeder I had purchased. It was a large glass apple type, with a single dropper on the bottom. While it did serve as a bright red beacon when the sunlight caught it, it also dripped sugar water onto the lawn below all day long, attracting ants and yellowjackets (both repel hummingbirds). It was fragile, being glass, and difficult to clean, since there was just the one small access hole in the bottom. Hummingbird feeders must be cleaned and refilled every few days, because sugar water grows bacteria very quickly in the summer air.
HummZinger hummingbird feeder
Based on the review at Hummingbirds.net, I switched to a HummZinger hummingbird feeder made by Aspects, Inc. of Warren, Rhode Island. I bought the “fancy” model because hey, life is a banquet.
All of the HummZinger models employ a saucer-style design, making them drip-free. They are very easy to clean and fill, and they include features to thwart ants and bees. They also have perches, so that a hummingbird does not have to hover to feed, wasting the very energy it is trying to replenish. This hummingbird feeder is brilliant!
Amy and I dutifully cleaned and refilled the HummZinger all summer, never spotting another hummer. I expected as much, but held out hope that the feeder would be used during the fall migration.
On September 10, leaving to pick up a pizza to eat during the Bears/Packers game, I spotted a tiny bird up on a low branch in our birch tree. It spotted me too, and flew right over my head and into the backyard, as if to say, “Yes, I am the Ruby-throated Hummingbird you were expecting this weekend.” Hummingbirds are known for being very unafraid of humans.
Over the next three days, while a minor hurricane shambled over our area and dumped buckets of rain on our yard, the little bird manned a perch in a bush opposite our kitchen and made runs to the feeder every 20 minutes or so, all day long. He just conserved energy, loaded up on carbohydrates, and waited for the storm system to pass. Watching him hover and sip while she poured the morning coffee, Amy said it seemed magical, like Tinkerbell or something. Finally, on Wednesday morning, it circled past my window and took off into a clearing in the sky.
That was it — just the one young male (judging from the underdeveloped gorget, the dark red patch on the males for which the Ruby-throats are named), but it was a start. The feeder is in the basement now, but it will go back up on its hanger by April 1 at the latest, in order to catch their spring migration.
Plus, there will be more flowers next season. The honeysuckles we planted this year should slowly climb the utility pole. Tall, red impatiens will go into the shadier beds to provide blooms all summer. We’ll get some purple Rose of Sharon plants along the house for late blossoms.