For many years right around Memorial Day, I have received reports from homeowners throughout the state reporting the numbers of hummingbirds visiting their feeders dramatically increase. Although it is great to have squadrons of rubythroats zooming around our yards, many hummingbird experts are scratching their heads trying to figure out why the birds are so abundant at that time of the year. This year is no exception.
The first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving throughout much of Georgia in late March. Typically, at this time of the year it is unusual to host more than two to four birds at a time. At the peak of migration, you are lucky if you see six of eight of these aerial acrobats in your backyard. Most of these linger only long enough to refuel before resuming their migration to points north.
Once the migration has passed males and female scatter across the countryside and settle into breeding territories that possess a combination of suitable nesting sites and ample food supplies. Once a male chooses a section of real estate, he spend the rest of his time trying to attract females. These breeding territories rarely exceed an acre to two. Consequently, if a male doesn’t select a territory that includes your yard, you might not see any hummers visiting your feeders for a month or two.
If another male hummingbird happens to venture into a male’s breeding habitat, the interloper is attacked and usually driven off. For this reason, during the peak of the breeding season, you are not apt to spot more than one ruby-throated hummingbird male using the same feeder.
While male hummers are beating up on one another, the females are busy with the serious business of either incubating a fragile clutch of black-eyed pea-sized eggs or raising their first brood of the year. During the 10-12 days that females are incubating eggs, they spend most of their time on the nest. As such, they have little time to visit feeders.
Once the eggs hatch, females are kept extremely busy finding enough food to feed their young. During the approximately three weeks the young are preparing for their first flight, females are foraging for nectar as well as small, soft-bodied insects and spiders. These animals provide the much-needed protein necessary for the development of the young. As you might expect, females will visit our feeders more often during this time.
Since most of the state is in the peak of the ruby-throated hummingbird nesting season, I think you can see why it is seems odd to have swarms of hummingbirds patrolling our feeders right now. Some suggest perhaps this invasion is due to the fact hummingbird nesting was early this year, and the year’s first brood are now joining their parents at our feeders. However, based on my observations, this theory doesn’t hold any water. My banding efforts in prior years during this time frame revealed that all of the birds I captured in my backyard were adults. This year, although I have not done any early banding, I have not seen any immature birds at my feeders.
Another possible explanation is these the birds are late migrants. This seems unlikely since some rubythroats actually begin their southward migration in July. This leaves precious little time for the birds to reach their nesting grounds, establish breeding territories, and raise their young. However, since very little hummingbird banding is conducted at this time of the year in the Peach State, this theory cannot be disclaimed or proven.
A more plausible explanation is this dramatic change in hummingbird behavior is linked to another extremely dry spring. Once again, this year Georgia was treated with winter temperatures that were well above normal.
As a result, flowering plants bloomed much earlier than normal in many parts of the state. This was followed by increasingly dry conditions throughout much of April. A lack of rainfall has persisted throughout the month of May. This has further reduced the number of nectar-rich blooms available to hummingbirds. According to this theory, this situation has created a food shortage for hummingbirds and other nectar feeders. Even in the best of times, a hummingbird must often venture far and wide to feed themselves and their young. Our feeders offer hummingbirds with abundant sources of food that can be obtained with little effort.
If this is the scenario that is playing out this year, it will be interesting to see how this affects the success of the birds’ first nesting efforts. In the meantime, if hummers are not currently swarming around your feeders, be patient. Hummingbirds will be jousting with each other around your feeders in about a month. If, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have hummingbirds draining your feeders daily, don’t worry about why they are there, just sit back, and enjoy the show.
I learned a long time ago to expect the unexpected whenever I venture into my backyard. Recently two events that took place in my backyard in the same afternoon once again demonstrated you never know when you are going to witness something special.
In this case, I walked outside to take a close look at an extremely large cluster of long, tubular-shaped orange, red, and yellow blossoms poised atop one of our red-hot poker plant’s long flower stems. While standing within six feet of the large torch-like floral cluster, a ruby-throated hummingbird suddenly flew in and began feeding on the backside of the cluster of flowers. I could tell the bird was there because the tips of its wings projected beyond the sides of the flowery torch. I stood transfixed, savoring the opportunity to be standing so close to the feeding bird. All the while the bird fed I was hoping its feeding activities would bring it around to my side of the torch. I would like to report my vigil was rewarded; however, the bird eventually flew off without circling the blossoms. As it flew away, I could see the bird was an adult male rubythroat.
About an hour later, I went outside to see what else was going on outside my backdoor. This time when I reached the top of the steps leading from the deck into the yard, an adult Carolina chickadee perched in a nearby dogwood caught my eye. Since the bird seemed agitated I began looking about to see if the family cat was nearby.
Although I did not spot the cat, I saw four young chickadees flying from plant to plant. The birds had obviously just fledged from a nearby log nesting structure. Not wanting to stress the young birds, I watched the birds from the deck. It was obvious the youngsters were testing out their wings for the first time. They flew very slowly, never attaining an altitude of more than six feet. These flights were short and ended in clumsy landings.
Fearing my presence would alert the cat to what was going on, coupled with my desire not to hinder their initial attempts to fly, I went back inside. An hour or so later I went returned outside and was pleased the new squadron of chickadees had moved on.
I could not believe how fortunate I was to enjoy two fantastic wildlife adventures in the same afternoon. While I always find something of interest whenever I make a backyard trek, it is not often that I experience two very special encounters with my backyard neighbors within hours of each other.
What a day!
The red admiral is one of our most recognizable butterflies. This is because this dark, medium-sized (1.75-2.50″) butterfly displays striking reddish orange bands across the tops of its wings.
The red admiral flies rapidly from spot to spot. It often lands on the ground, the sides of our homes, large flowers, you name it. There it will often flatten out its wings and bask in the sunlight.
Whenever it lands on a flower, do not assume it is nectaring. The red admiral is a butterfly that only occasionally seeks nectar from blossoms. Instead is prefers to dine on the sugar found in plant sap. In fact, the largest concentration of red admirals I have ever seen was feeding on a gaping wound on the trunk of a willow tree. Sap was oozing from the spot where a large limb broke off the tree the night before during an intense thunderstorm.
The butterfly will also dine on the juices oozing from rotting fruit. I have also encountered red admirals seeking nourishment from dry dog food. In addition, to the chagrin of many, it will also visit piles of dung.
The list of red admiral host plants includes pellitory, nettles, and false nettle.
Since red admirals are now flying about backyards throughout Middle Georgia, I am sure they can now be seen in other parts of the state too. If you have not seen one yet, you have plenty of time to make the acquaintance of this butterfly this year. This strong flyer can be seen in Georgia from March through early November.
I must admit I do not see as many red admirals as I would like, however, whenever I do spot one it is a special treat. If you encounter your first red admiral this year, I am sure you will understand why I am so fond of this butterfly.
Now that the nesting season is in full swing, the birds nesting in our backyards face formidable odds trying to fledge their young. As we all know, many nesting attempts end in failure due the fact predators eat both eggs and young.
A list of the better-known nest predators includes crows, blue jays, raccoons, rat snakes, and opossums. However, there are a number of other animals that also eat eggs and/or nestlings. For example, would you believe deer mice, flying squirrels, and eastern chipmunks also raid bird nests?
I find it amazing that cardinals, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and other backyard nesters are able to raise as many young as they do.
Up until a few decades ago, biologists believed that as many as 93 percent of songbird families practiced monogamy. However, since the development of DNA fingerprinting in the 1980s, we now know some birds that appear to be devoted mates will stray.
This earth-shattering realization came about quickly. For example, by 2002, researchers discovered that up until that time a meager 14 percent of the songbirds tested were truly monogamous. Research has shown 19 percent of the nests of supposed monogamous birds are home to at least one nestling that was sired by a father different from the rest of its nest mates.
A few of the backyard birds that are promiscuous are the eastern bluebird, ruby-throated hummingbird, house finch, and red-winged blackbird.
It would appear that some of our backyard feathered neighbors live soap opera lives.
Have you ever given any thought of trying to provide nesting hummingbirds with a source of nesting material? I must admit while I have placed pieces of cotton in a wire suet feeder in the spring hoping it might be used by nesting birds, I never considered the possibility the white fibers might be used by a ruby-throated hummingbird. However, three events have caused me to change my mind.
Several years ago, I presented a hummingbird program to a garden club in southwest Georgia that met in the home of one of its members. While I was setting up my projector and screen, the host asked me if I ever heard of a hummingbird using cotton to build a nest. I told her although I had not, I could see how hummingbirds might incorporate cotton in a nest.
She then went on the explain that she had seen a female hummer collect cotton in her backyard. It seems she planted a cotton seed in a pot that sat near her house. The seed germinated and grew into a healthy plant festooned with balls of cotton. Since the plant looked attractive, she left it in pot throughout the winter.
The following spring while she was standing in her living room, looking out across her patio a female hummingbird flew down, plucked some cotton fibers from a cotton ball, and flew up to a nearby tree. The bird repeated this behavior several times. Although she never actually saw the bird using the cotton to build a nest, she surmised that is what the little bird was doing.
I was reminded of this homeowner’s experience last week when I received an email from a man relating that he had witnessed a female hummingbird collect a bit of cotton from a suet feeder filled with cotton batting. This prompted him to search for a nest. Remarkably, his efforts paid off and he discovered a hummingbird nest close by.
Earlier this week I mentioned this event to a cousin. He was so intrigued by the story he went out and bought a wire suet feeder, filled it with cotton, and hung it out near his home. Unbelievably before the sun set he spotted a female hummer pulling strands of cotton from the feeder. Now he is looking for a nest.
With this kind of success, perhaps this is something we should all try. Even though a hummingbird might not avail itself of the cotton we offer, chances are other nesting birds will.