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BACKYARD SECRET: HUMMINGBIRDS PREFER NECTAR WITH PLENTY OF SUGAR

   

    RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD FEEDING

       Ruby-throated hummingbirds do not feed at flowers containing small amounts of nectar.  In fact, they refuse to feed at flowers harboring less than 12 percent sugar.

       Studies have found that they prefer to dine on nectar that contains anywhere from twenty to twenty-five percent sugar.

       With that in mind, is it any wonder the recommended ratio of sugar to water in the sugar water we most often feed hummingbirds dining at our backyard feeders is one part sugar to four parts water?

INDEPENDENCE DAY HUMMINGBIRD EXPLOSION

        No Independence Day celebration would be complete without fireworks.  The explosions of brilliant colors against the dark summer night add a special excitement to this festive time of the year.  However, during this special time of the year aerial kaleidoscopes of color do not have to be confined to the night.  From dawn to dusk, hummingbirds decked out in iridescent green and red streak across Georgia backyards creating their own colorful aerial displays.

       July is a special time of the year for hummingbird enthusiasts.  Beginning around Independence Day there is an explosion of hummingbirds at our feeders.  Up until then, ruby-throated hummingbirds have been scattered across the countryside living in discreet breeding territories measuring an acre or more in size.  Consequently, aside for a brief period that extends from late May into early June, large concentrations of hummers around our feeders are rare occurrences.  All of this changes after the females complete their nesting chores.  With the breeding season largely coming to an end, rubythroats begin preparing for their fall migration.

       For these flying dynamos, getting ready for this epic journey means storing the fat needed to fuel their southward flight away from backyards across North America.  These tiny birds may visit 1,500 flowers in a single day trying to put on weight as quickly as possible.

       The main sources of food are nectar gleaned from flowers, small soft-bodied invertebrates as well as the sugar water we offer them at feeders hanging in our backyards.  Since drought conditions across much of the state have resulted in a paucity of nectar-laden wildflowers this year, nectar will be in short supply this summer.  This forces the birds to look to the flowering plants and hummingbird bird feeders located in our backyards for a readily available source of energy.

       The folks that will host the most hummingbirds at this time of the year are those that had the foresight to incorporate a variety of nectar-bearing flowers into their landscape design to go along with feeders filled with fresh nectar.  If you failed to plant flowers for hummingbirds this past spring, make a mental note to do so next year. 

       Meanwhile offer your hummingbird visitors plenty of nectar.  Begin by hanging up one or two feeders.  Add additional feeders as the number of diners at your backyard cafe increase.  Make sure there is always plenty of food for the birds.  If you plan on going on vacation, ask a neighbor to monitor and refill feeders as needed.  This will help ensure an explosion of ruby-throated hummingbirds will be patrolling your feeders long after the fireworks of this Independence Day have faded away.

THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD’S DISPLAY FLIGHT

         One of the most fascinating animal behaviors can you see in your backyard is the display flight of the male ruby-throated hummingbird.

         Over the years, I have been fortunate to witness this fete on a number of occasions.  However, until last week I had never observed it three separate times in a matter of a couple of days.

        This acrobatic maneuver is unmistakable.  The male will repeatedly fly to and fro in a wide U-shaped arc.  Often the male is so adept at retracing the path of his previous arc it appears he is coursing along an unseen track.

        At times, the bottom of the arc brings the male so close to the head of a perched female you are convinced he is going to collide with her.  As he approaches the seemingly unperturbed object of his affection, the buzzing sound created by the air passing through his tail and wing feathers becomes appreciably louder.  This dramatic display is designed to convince the female he is a suitable suitor.  However, the only time she gives him the time of day is during a handful of days prior to her laying a clutch of two eggs.

        After I enjoyed the sight of a male rubythroat engaged in an aerial display, I related the story to my wife.  She said she had never been lucky enough to see the display.  Remarkably  the very next day, while we were both standing on our deck a male suddenly appeared and performed the aerial fete in front of us.  In fact, one side of the U-shaped arc was so close to our heads I thought he was going to collide with us.

         A couple of days later my daughter was standing on the deck with us when she suddenly exclaimed,  “What is that hummingbird doing?”  I looked up and could not believe my eyes–a male rubythroat was once again engaged in a display flight.

        Observing three ruby-throated hummingbird aerial displays and being able to be with my wife and daughter when they both witnessed their first courtship displays is something I will never forget;  this is backyard wildlife watching at its best.

MEMORIAL DAY RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS

        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.

       

A HUMMINGBIRD AND CHICKADEES BROUGHT BACKYARD SURPRISES

        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!

PROVIDING NESTING MATERIAL FOR HUMMERS

       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.  

HUMMINGBIRD HAVENS

       Georgians love hummingbirds.  Each year residents from Woodbine to West Point, Bainbridge to Helen and countless cities and towns in between Peach State hummingbird enthusiasts spend hours enjoying the beauty and aerial acrobatics of the bird John James Audubon called “glittering fragments of the rainbow.”  

       Remarkably, although these tiny dynamos enjoy immense popularity, Georgians are not doing all they can to provide habitat for these tiny dynamos.  Realizing this Garden Club of Georgia and the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section (formerly known as the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Section) and The Environmental Resources Network (TERN) have launched an ambitious initiative named the Hummingbird Haven Certification Program.

       The goal of the effort is to encourage homeowners to combine hummingbird feeders with an abundance of nectar-bearing plants in yards.  Hummingbird experts agree that the folks that attract the most hummingbirds to their yards are those that combine offering both feeders and an abundance of nectar-bearing plants.

       The initiative is part of the more than two decades old award-winning Community Wildlife Project (CWP).  This program has successfully promoted the concept that wildlife is a very important part of the communities in which we live.  It has shown Georgians that, with a little planning and effort, we can provide our wildlife neighbors with the food, water and cover they need to prosper while at the same time beautify the communities in which we live.

       Over the years, thousands of certifications have been awarded for areas large and small. Habitats have ranged backyards, neighborhoods, assisted living facilities, cities, towns, and even a county.  These efforts have benefitted a wide variety of birds, mammals, butterflies and other wildlife species.

       As the name suggests, the Hummingbird Haven certification is designed to encourage and recognize those Georgians that are doing outstanding jobs providing hummingbirds and abundance of food and cover throughout the entire year.

       While the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species of hummingbird that nests in the Peach State, eleven other species have been reported here.  This list includes the rufous, Allen’s, Anna’s, broad-billed, broad-tailed, black-chinned, magnificent, calliope, green-breasted mango, buff-bellied and green violet-ear.  Most of these birds are only seen in Georgia during the winter, which has been called Georgia’s second hummingbird season.

       The focal point of the program is to provide hummingbirds with a dependable supply of nectar supplied by plants throughout as much of the year as possible.  The plants that provide this natural food include a long list of trees, shrubs, perennials, biennials, annuals and vines.

       However, not all flowering plants are good nectar plants. For example, although popular plants such as daffodils, forsythia and crepe myrtle, are beautiful they offer hummingbirds and other nectar-feeders little food.  As such, the initiative encourages homeowners to plant excellent hummingbird nectar plants alongside garden favorites that provide little or no nectar.

       Since hummingbirds are found in Georgia throughout the entire year, The Garden Club of Georgia, Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section and TERN Nongame Wildlife Conservation are asking folks to plant a variety of plants that provide nectar throughout as much of the year as possible.  Believe it or not, there are actually nectar plants blooming in Georgia in the winter. 

       As for hummingbird feeders, homeowners are asked to maintain at least one feeder in their yards throughout the year. These feeders provide a dependable source of food when little is blooming nearby.  Feeders also allow hummingbirds that are preparing to migrate to consume a large amount of food in a short period of time with little effort.  They also provide migrating hummingbirds with food-rich rest stops along their migration pathway. Then when the migration is over, they offer wintering hummingbirds with much-needed food during the time of the year when natural nectar is scarcest.

       If you would like to see if your yard qualifies as a true Hummingbird Haven, there are three ways to do so. You can send a stamped, self-addressed size 10 envelope to Hummingbird Haven, Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section, and 116 Rum Creek Drive, Forsyth, Georgia 31029.  You will be sent a Hummingbird Haven application for certification. You can call Melissa Hayes at 478-994-1438 and request an application. In addition, the application can also be obtained by emailing Melissa Hayes at Melissa.Hayes@dnr.gov. Once you complete your application and return it to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section, it will be carefully evaluated. If you qualify, you will receive a certificate that acknowledges all that you are doing for the tiny birds. In addition, you will be eligible to buy an attractive metal Community Wildlife Project sign from the Garden Club of Georgia.

       If your application is rejected, you will be advised what you need to do to earn certification.

TALK ABOUT FUEL EFFICIENCY!

         Nowadays whenever we purchase a new vehicle, we want to know its fuel efficiency.  While current models are amazingly more efficient than they were 20 to 30 years ago, they do not even come close to being as fuel- efficient as the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Those ruby-throated hummingbirds that are returning to the United States this spring have to fly anywhere from 500-600 miles across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Remarkably, these tiny birds can make this journey using but 3/40th of an ounce of fuel (fat). To put this in perspective, if a 170-pound man or woman could fly like a hummingbird, it would require storing 85 pounds of fat! Now that is fuel efficiency!

LYRELEAF SAGE PROVIDES NECTAR FOR HUMMERS AND OTHERS

        Those of us who try to stock our gardens with a variety hummingbird nectar plants are constantly on the lookout for something new.  Too often, this quest leads us to nonnative plants while overlooking native plants.  One of these  native plants, the lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), may actually be blooming in your yard.  In fact, I found a few lyreleaf sage plants blooming in my yard.

        The lyreleaf sage grows in a wide variety of locations. It can be found anywhere from open woods, roadsides, lawns, damp meadows to dry waste sites. In spite of the fact that the plant displays beautiful lavender blossoms on a slender stalk (1-2 feet tall) it is often overlooked. In fact, many homeowners consider it a weed and mow it down.

        Lyreleaf sage begins blooming as early in February in some parts of Georgia and will continue blooming into May.  One of the reasons I am so fond of this plant is it provides hummingbirds with a source of nectar early in the spring when nectar is often scarce.   The plant also attracts butterflies and bees to its nectar-laden showy blooms.  

        The plant readily reseeds often forming robust colonies.  However, as with many roadside  and pasture plants, mowing often hinders its ability to reproduce.

        If you are fond of salvias, you will love this native salvia. Although its blossoms are small, they are every bit as beautiful as the salvias the grace our gardens.

        Although you can purchase lyreleaf sage seeds, they are often pricey.  I have seen 20 seeds cost more than six dollars.  Before you go out and buy some lyreleaf salvia seeds, explore your yard, there is a chance it has been hiding there in plain sight.  If you  do not locate it, I honestly believe it would be worthwhile spending a little money to get it established.