Even folks who don't regularly feed the birds in the winter put out feeders for the ruby-throated hummingbird come summer. Hummingbirds are amazing little birds that give us many hours of pleasure observing them.
Hummingbirds are the smallest migrating bird and these little guys fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America for the winter, across 500 miles of open sea in one trip. They average 50 wing beats per second and this number can go up to 200 during courtship displays. Speed-wise they go about 25 mph and can reach 55 mph in those courtship displays.
Hummingbirds can fly not only forward and sideways but also backwards; they're the only bird that can do this. That's because their wings move about 180 degrees at the shoulders and the wing tips trace a figure-eight pattern as the backward and forward wing strokes lift them. By simply changing the angle of their wings they can maneuver and change their flight direction, which gives them that quick direction-changing flight pattern that we see around our flowers and feeders. The hummingbird's very name comes from the noise its wings make during all those aerobic moves.
Hummingbirds spend most of their time flying and hovering to feed. Their diet consists of nectar from flowers, tree sap, small insects such as fruit flies — and the contents of your feeder. They consume almost twice their weight in sugar each day because their high metabolism requires it. At night, when they can not fill this requirement, they go into a state of torpor (kind of like hibernation); when they sleep, their heartbeat and breathing are greatly reduced.
In late spring, the males return to Western New York about a week or so before the females, to establish breeding territories and defend them. Once the females return, the males attempt to attract their attention with spectacular, large "U" shaped flights, up and down, with frequent vocal chattering and, of course, that wing noise. Once the female picks her “man” they mate and that is the end of their relationship. He will mate with other females while she is left with the building of the nest, incubation and raising the young.
The nest is usually built out on a small branch by using spider webbing and plant parts. Spider webbing expands as the young grow, holding them so they do not fall out of the nest. After weaving this small cup nest, the female covers the outside with gray-green lichen to camouflage it. The nest has about a 1-1/2-inch inside diameter and is about 2-1/2 inches tall. It is then lined with soft plant down and two eggs, about the size of a pea, are lain.
Incubation is about 14 to 16 days and the female remains on the nest most of each hour. That means she has to meet her feeding needs nearby and quickly. Then, several days after hatching, she must keep her babies warm and gather food to feed them; it's a busy time for her. The young remain in the nest under the mother's care for about five to six weeks and when they leave the nest they are on their own.
Well, I have rambled on about this amazing bird too much! The question is what can you do to help these hummers along?
First, keep your feeder fresh by changing the sugar water every four to five days. You don't have to fill the feeder, just use enough to carry through those days. Bacteria can develop in the food, especially during hot periods, which can harm the birds. So, not only do you need to change the food regularly, you must do a good job of cleaning all the inside parts of the feeder. If you can hang your feeder in a shaded area so much the better.
The males at this time have nothing to do but attempt to keep other hummers away from "their” feeder, which can be a problem for the brooding female. I have a number of feeders scattered around my house, which allows those brooding gals to slip in and feed without the males troubling them too much.
Ants can be a problem at the feeder. I solve it by installing a small moat on the feeder, using a plastic snack fruit cup, some wire and a dab of glue.
Bees can be a problem, too, and they are harder to discourage. Here are some strategies: Avoid the color yellow on your hummingbird feeder; change the feeder location constantly; keep the feeder in the shade; and use a feeder with bee guards on the feeding holes. A yellow decoy feeder hung in the sun might also draw bees away from your hummingbird feeder.
So, enjoy our amazing little summer hummers, but put in the time to take good care of them. They do remember where they were taken care of last year and will return to that location the following year.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org .