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DO HUMMINGBIRDS SEEM TO BE LEAVING EARLY THIS YEAR?

        It appears that hummingbirds are leaving my yard early this year.

       Throughout most of August, my wife and I made lots of hummingbird food.  During these hot days of August, we were preparing and feeding the birds 20-25 cups of nectar every day or two.  This was because we were feeding more hummingbirds than during any previous August.  Based on the maximum numbers of birds we were seeing at any given time, I calculated that we were feeding 100 or more hummers daily.

       These numbers remained steady until September 4 when the nectar consumption dropped significantly.  Suddenly we were feeding the birds 20-25 cups of nectar every three to four days.  This was surprising because, in a normal year, we don’t see a significant decline in hummingbird numbers that early in the month.

       On September 12, I was surprised to see an adult male ruby-throated hummingbird dining at our feeders.  The bird also returned the next day.  While seeing an adult male that late in the summer was big news, what was even bigger news was the male was one of only three hummingbirds using our feeders daily.

       Since then, the male has moved on, however, we are still feeding only two or three hummingbirds.  This is in spite of the fact that we are still providing the little migrants with plenty of sugar water and flowerbeds and containers are awash with the blooms of a number of nectar plants.

       The seemingly early departure of the birds has reinforced my realization that, in spite of studying these magical birds for decades, there is so much I still do not know about them.

       I sure would like to know whether you have noticed that rubythroats seemingly left your yard early this year also.  It would help me understand if this is a local or widespread phenomenon.

SAYING GOOD-BYE FOR ANOTHER YEAR

       Currently our backyards are abuzz with hummingbirds.  The birds we are now seeing are a combination of ruby-throated hummingbirds that have already begun their migration and local birds that are preparing to embark on their fall migration.

       The first birds to leave are the adult males.  Some males that that breed north of Georgia actually begin flying south during the first couple of weeks in July.  In comparison, males that spent the spring and summer in Georgia often do not commence their migration until late July or early August.  However, it is still possible to see a few males at our feeders right now.

       Adult females migrate next.  The vast majority of the birds that are now gorging themselves on the nectar provided by our flowers such as scarlet sage and feeders are a combination of adult females, immature females, and immature males.  As I have discussed in former blogs (check the archive), it is easy to tell the immature males from the females.  However, it is often next to impossible to distinguish an adult female from a female hatched this year from afar.  In fact, the only sure way to do this is capture them and closely examine their bills.  However, in some cases, at this time of the year adult females are often larger than immature females.

       While the migration of the adult females is already underway, some will be feeding in our yards for a few more weeks.

       The last to leave are immature hummers.  They will be devouring as much nectar as they can consume for a few more weeks.  Ideally, an immature that weighed only about three grams a few weeks ago will try to store enough fuel (fat) to bring its weight up to around five grams before leaving.

       My wife and I have enjoyed feeding more hummingbirds this year than ever before.  We have been feeding them around twenty cups of nectar a day for weeks.  In addition, we have thoroughly enjoyed watching the birds visiting scarlet sage, zinnias, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, and a host of other plants.  We have also seen the birds apparently gleaning tiny insects and spiders from foliage and flowers that do not produce an abundance of nectar.  We realize the protein these small animals provide is an essential part of the hummingbird’s diet.

       Much to our chagrin hummingbird numbers have dropped off in recent days.  We know that they have to leave, but that we also realize we will miss them.  As such, even though we are still hosting lots of hummingbirds, we are already looking forward to their return next spring.

       If you are an avid fan of rubythroats, I am sure you understand why we feel this way.

A SIMPLE TIP THAT WILL HELP AVOID BEES AT HUMMER FEEDERS

        There are a number tactics folks employ to deter bees, yellow jackets, and wasps from their feeders.  Here is one you may not have considered: avoid using feeders decorated with yellow features. 

       Most often, yellow is used to decorate the artificial flowers surrounding feeding portals.  I am not sure why manufacturers go to so much trouble to include yellow in the color scheme of a feeder.  Perhaps they feel yellow flowers look more realistic, or attractive.  Who knows?  One thing we do know is hummingbirds are attracted to the color red found on such places as the feeder base and top.  As such, using yellow on a feeder does not enhance the chances that hummingbirds will use it.            

       When yellow is used to decorate a feeder, it simply makes the feeder more appealing to bees, yellow jackets, and wasps.  The reason for this is honeybees, wasps, and yellow jackets are attracted to the color yellow.  Consequently, in theory, feeders that do not feature the color yellow should not be visited by these insects as often as feeders without the bright color.

       However, if red feeders are coated with sugar water that has sloshed out of feeder portals, squadrons of these stinging insects will most assuredly show up.  In addition, these flying insects are capable of finding a source of food regardless of whether it has any yellow on it or not.  I know this is true as just last week I was stung by a yellow jacket as I tried to refill one of my red feeders.

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       Using feeders without yellow will not solve the problem of hummingbirds having to share nectar with hornets, honeybees, and yellow jackets.  However, it just might help alleviate the problem.

BACKYARD SECRET–THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD DOES NOT NEED TO DRINK WATER

       I am sure you have noticed that you never see a ruby-throated hummingbird drinking from your birdbath.  Well, there is a reason for this.  It seems the ruby-throated hummingbird consumes all of the moisture it needs from the nectar it obtains from our flowers and feeders.

BACKYARD SECRET–HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS CAN HELP SUPPLY SUGAR BUT NOT REPLACE FLOWER NECTAR

       According to some reports, in backyard settings, hummingbird feeders are capable of daily supplying hummingbirds with the same amount of sugar produced by 2,000-5,000 flowers.  While this is indeed amazing, hummingbird fanciers should not lose sight of the fact the sugar water offered in feeders cannot replace nectar produced by flowers.  This is because naturally manufactured nectar is laden with nutrients and minerals needed by these tiny birds to stay in top physical condition.

       Attempts to maintain captive hummingbirds on sugar water alone have not been successful.

BE ON THE LOOK OUT FOR YOUNG HUMMINGBIRDS VISITING YOUR FEEDERS

       As we all know, summer is the peak of the ruby-throated hummingbird season.  During the next two and a half months, we will see more hummingbirds at our feeders than at any other time of the year.  These birds are adult males and females and their young.  Have you ever wondered if it is possible to adult from immature rubythroats?

       Although we can all tell an adult male rubythroat (it has a red gorget) from a female (white throat), unless you capture the females and closely examine their bills, it is next to impossible to separate immature from adult females.  Such is not the case with the young males. 

       The throats of immature male ruby-throated hummingbirds are marked with a series of dark feathers arranged in rows that extend down the neck of the bird.  Typically, by August one or two red gorget feathers will appear in the center of the bird’s throat.  These feathers remind me of the stick pen commonly used by men to decorate their ties.  As time goes on, more red feathers appear near the center of the young male’s throat.  By the time, the hummingbirds leave in September a young male may display twenty or more gorget feathers in addition to the distinctive lines of spots.  When he returns next spring, the dark streaks on its throat will have disappeared and he will sport a full red gorget.

       Each summer I find it interested to see when I see the first hatching year male hummingbird finally arrives at my feeders.  It is a sign that hummingbird numbers are on the upswing.

BACKYARD SECRET–RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS EAT LOTS OF INSECTS AND SPIDERS

       Most hummingbird enthusiasts believe plant nectar is the primary food of the ruby-throated hummingbird.  At the same time, they recognize small insects and spiders are essential to the rubythroat’s diet.  However, according to entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy, renowned native plant proponent, and a growing number of hummingbird experts, hummingbirds are actually insectivorous birds that also consume nectar.  In fact, Dr. Tallamy has stated, Hummingbirds like and need nectar but 80 percent of their diet is insects and spiders.”

       Research conducted by biologists at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology seem to corroborate this claim.  When the researchers trapped and followed the movements of a female hummingbird for two weeks never once did she eat any nectar.

                       

IS HUMMINGBIRD FOOD MADE IN A MICROWAVE SAFE FOR THE BIRDS?

       Recently, reports have surfaced claiming hummingbird nectar prepared in a microwave is harmful to the health of the hummingbirds that consume it.  Is this claim true?

       The internet sites making this allegation provide little information to substantiate the allegation.  One site alleges that when a sugar solution is heated in a microwave the chemical composition of the sugar molecule is altered.  This, in turn, has a deleterious effect on sugar’s nutritional value to hummingbirds.

       This belief may stem from the fact that it has been widely reported that food heated in a microwave can reduce the levels of such things as vitamin C, some antioxidants, and omega fatty acids.

       I have checked a number of sources trying to run down the source of this allegation.  To date, I have not been able to uncover a single study that substantiates the claim.  In fact, as of this posting, even the prestigious Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology’s website does not warn hummingbird enthusiasts of any danger associated with boiling hummingbird nectar in a microwave.

      Until this issue is resolved, if you are among the folks that use a microwave to prepare hummingbird food, you might want to use the microwave to heat the water you are going to use to make nectar.  Then remove the water before adding the sugar to create the food.  This eliminates any possibility that the food value of the nectar is compromised by the boiling process.

       As you probably already know, you need to use extreme caution when adding the sugar to the boiling water.  Water heated in a microwave to this temperature has a tendency to “explode” when touched with a foreign object.  This extremely hot water can burn the preparer’s hands.

        Whenever I am able to determine whether this claim is true or false, I will let you know.

NOW IS A GREAT TIME TO BEGIN PLANTING ZINNIAS

      Zinnias are among my favorite plants.  Whenever I plant them, I cannot help but recall pleasant memories of planting them as a child many years ago.  Now that I am a wildlife gardener, I am fond of them because the add beauty to my yard and are great wildlife plants too.  With that in mind, my wife and I are preparing to plant zinnias for the first time this year.  That’s right I said for the first time because my wife and I plant zinnias multiple times a year.

       We plant patches of zinnias in our gardens as well as in large planters.  The crop we are planting now will begin producing flowers in sixty to seventy days.  Once the plants bloom, we prolong the time they bloom by deadheading spent blossoms.  By planting zinnias once week for several weeks, we are ensuring that we will enjoy zinnia blossoms and our wildlife neighbors will have access to the food they provide well into the fall.

       My wife and I have had the best luck attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and our nectar feeders using single-flowered varieties.  They provide hummingbirds easy access to the plant’s nectar.  In addition, many butterflies seem to prefer feeding on the relatively flat surface offered by the flat landing area found on the blooms of old fashion varieties.

       While butterflies visit zinnias for their nectar, hummingbirds also eat the tiny insects often found on zinnia blooms.  In fact, it has been suggested they visit zinnias as much for the protein provided by insects as they do nectar.

       My wife and I also enjoy watching American goldfinches visit our zinnias during the summer.  The birds spend day after day pulling the petals off zinnia flowers to reach the seeds found at base of the petals.

       I think it is great that zinnias enhance by backyard wildlife viewing opportunities by attracting hummingbirds, scores of butterflies and American goldfinches.

       I hope you will plant them in your garden this year.  If you do, I will be surprised if they do not offer you some great wildlife viewing too.

LOOKING AT NECTAR PLANTS THROUGH THE EYES OF A HUMMINGBIRD

      My wife and I enjoy gardening for hummingbirds.  In an effort to provide them with a source of nectar throughout as much of the year as possible, we provide them a multitude of plants.  The list of nectar plants includes such hummingbird favorites as zinnia, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, lantana, coral honeysuckle, scarlet sage, lyre leaf sage, red buckeye, hollyhock, columbine and many more.  These plants provide us with an ever-changing mosaic composed of different colors.  Often when I gaze at this gorgeous setting, I cannot help but wonder what these plants look like through the eyes of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit these flowers countless times.

       Research conducted by researchers representing the Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard, University of Maryland, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the University of British Columbia has revealed our ability to see colors pales in comparison with that of hummingbirds.  Princeton University Assistant Professor Mary Caswell put it this way, “Humans are color blind compared to birds and many other animals.” 

       The research discovered hummingbirds appear to be able to detect pure ultra-violet from a combination of colors such as ultra-violet plus red and red as well as ultra-violet plus green from pure green.  Ultra-violet plus red and ultra-violet plus green were undetectable to the researchers.

       Many scientists believe the reason why hummingbirds are able to see far more colors than us is linked to the fact that a hummingbird’s eye contains four different types of cones whereas humans have but three.  The fourth type of cones detect near ultra-violet light (UV).  Ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye. 

       The ability to detect near UV light is beneficial to hummingbirds because many nectar plants display colors in the near UV light range.  Consequently, such plants stand out more to hummingbirds than they do to humans.

              I am certain that this research represents another step toward our greater understanding of the hummingbird’s ability to see colors.  Wouldn’t it great to catch a glimpse at the colors of the natural world through the eyes of a hummingbird?