Here’s a checklist of conditions that these colorful visitors from Central America like.
One caveat: This list is written with the ruby-throated hummingbird in mind. This species (Archilochus colubris) visits the Eastern United States starting in the spring and is the only hummingbird to breed in this part of the country. It migrates from Central America to the Gulf Coast and then travels as far north as the lower regions of Canada. Western species such as the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) or Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) might behave somewhat differently.
A male ruby-throated hummingbird, a first-year hatchling just 6-10 weeks old, rests in the hand of licensed bander Julia Elliott. (Photo: Tom Oder)
Where you live is important
Julia Elliott, a licensed hummingbird bander in the Atlanta area who has banded more than 1,000 birds, says there is a lot of speculation that the further a hummer enthusiast lives from civilization, the better chance he will have of attracting large numbers of the birds to backyard feeders. This theory, she readily admits, is based on observation rather than scientific studies or hard data from bird counts. If you live in or near a city and aren’t attracting birds or aren’t attracting many, Elliott suggests putting out a cluster of four or five feeders. She thinks that might help draw in the birds and get them to congregate in your yard.
Does this mean hummers want open spaces?
“That’s hard to say,” says Elliott. “They feed on nectar-producing plants, and almost all of these plants need sun.” Having an open habitat bordered by woods shouldn’t be a problem, she said, but “these are definitely not forest birds.”
Putting out feeders before optimal time for peak activity
Many people tend to put out hummingbird feeders in March or April on the first warm day of spring. While these are warm-weather birds, putting out feeders this early could have results that don’t reach expectations, Elliott advises. While the first hummers begin arriving from Central America in the Southern states as early as mid-to-late March, these are the first migrants and they are moving through to summer grounds further north. It’s fine to put out feeders for these birds, she said. “Early arriving birds may really need an artificial nectar source to help them along in their migration, especially if there has been an early or late spring and the flower timing is off,” she pointed out.
For example, the big numbers, Elliott said, don’t build in the Atlanta area until after July 4. “Just remember that if your are not seeing birds at your feeder, then it doesn’t mean they aren’t in the area!” Some ruby-throated hummingbirds will travel as far as the lower regions of Canada. The further north you live in the Eastern United States, the later the birds will arrive, and the sooner they will leave for the fall migration.
Hanging hummingbird feeders in clusters prevents a dominant bird from chasing other hummers away from a single feeder. The red moats above the feeders are filled with water and prevent ants from getting into the sugar water solution in the feeders. (Photo: Tom Oder)
But what if I get a late freeze?
Suppose you put out a feeder in late March or April and there’s a late freeze. Will it kill these warm-weather birds? Don’t worry, says Elliott. These little guys are tougher than you might think. While most will return to winter grounds in Central America in the fall, some have been observed over-wintering along the Georgia and Gulf coasts.
Does it matter where you place feeders?
No. If you have a small space, it’s fine to hang a feeder in or near a seating area.
And if you have a backyard garden, like Mark Watson, an Atlanta hummer enthusiast who invited Elliott and fellow bander Karen Theodorou to band birds at his house in late July, you can put them throughout the yard. Watson has 50-60 feeders, one at every possible location in his backyard, which looks like a Six Flags for hummingbirds. Some feeders hang from trees, some are suspended from poles that hold multiple feeders, several are beside patio doors while others are placed on a stair rail leading to a second-floor balcony where the railing is lined with more feeders.
“We’ll be sitting out here on the patio, and they’ll whiz right past us,” said Watson’s wife, Teresa. “These are not shy birds!” exclaimed Elliott.
Suppose you have a dominant bird
Hummers are notoriously territorial. A dominant bird will attempt to chase away competitors from a feeder it has claimed as its own. Elliott has a way to deal with such a bird. “Put out one or more clusters of at least three feeders in each cluster,” she advised. “This will simply overwhelm a dominant bird. It can’t defend them all.”
What about ants?
The sugar water in your feeder will attract ants. Hanging the feeder from a red moat filled with water (see the photo above and look at the feeder on the right) will easily solve this problem. The water forms a barrier the ants can’t cross. Another benefit of the moat is that it will provide a water source that will attract songbirds.
Saucer feeders come with a built-in moat. However, the moat is small and the water can quickly evaporate on hot summer days.
What about bees?
If bees and wasps are a serious problem, try using a saucer feeder rather than a tubular feeder. The nectar solution is further from the surface of a saucer feeder than from the surface of a tubular feeder. Bees and wasps don’t have a proboscis long enough to feed from a saucer feeder.
Photo: Martin Cathrae/Flickr
When are the birds most active around feeders?
In the mornings and evenings. They don’t like the sometimes-sweltering heat of a summer day any more than people do. In the middle of the day, they tend to feed more on insects such as gnats and mosquitoes rather than using their energy to hover around feeders. Bottom line: Don’t worry if you don’t see hummers in the middle of the day. They’re just conserving energy.
What if there’s a hurricane?
Hummers won’t be able to feed during a hurricane and the winds may destroy flowers on nectar-producing plants. Make sure you refill feeders with fresh nectar as soon as it’s safe to go outside.
When should I bring my feeders in?
Actually, it’s a good idea if you live in the Southeast to leave one or two feeders up all winter. Leaving feeders up when summer turns to fall and fall turns to winter will not keep the birds from migrating. “The will is too strong,” said Elliott.
“The reason to leave feeders up in the Southeast is that this region is now the normal winter range for the rufous hummingbird,” said Elliott. “What we think is going on is range expansion,” she added.
A few winters ago, she said, a rufous hummingbird was trapped, banded and released in Tallahassee, Fla. The next summer it was trapped and released by a bander in Alaska, which is part of its normal summer range. In another case that shows the apparent range expansion of this species, a rufous was trapped, banded and released in the winter in Texas and trapped and released the next summer in Alaska.
“These are pioneers in their species,” Elliott said.
When do the ruby-throated birds leave for Central America in the fall?
They are pretty much gone by November, Elliott said. The general cycle for the ruby-throats’ annual visit to North America follows this general cycle, she said.
- May-April: Early migrants.
- May-June: Breeding.
- July: First brood is out of the nest and feeder activity picks up.
- August-September: Second brood, in areas where there is one, is out of the nest and the birds are gorging at feeders. In some cases they are doubling their weight for the flight to Alabama, Louisiana and Texas and then the long flight across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America or down the land mass into Mexico. The birds going to Central America travel about 500 miles across the Gulf in a flight that lasts between 18 and 24 hours, Elliott said. The males will begin migrating first because their job is done, Elliott added.
- October: All of the birds that will migrate have moved to the Gulf Coast.
- November: All that will or can migrate have left the United States. It’s about this time, Elliott added, that the rufous will begin moving into the Eastern states.
Elliott, Theodorou and Watson offered their top reasons hummers may not be showing up at feeders:
- The nectar is not fresh. It should be changed twice a week.
- Feeders are put out before optimal time for peak activity.
- Feeders are decorative but not functional.
- Not enough feeders.
- Ants are getting into the feeders because there isn’t a moat.
Sugar water solution: The ratio is four parts water to one part sugar.
Additives: None, and that includes red food dye or honey.
What else do hummingbirds like?
If you have room for a garden or even a few pots, Watson suggests creating a natural hummingbird habitat with one or more of these plants:
- Pineapple sage
- Black and blue salvia
- Bee balm
- Trumpet vine
- Shrimp plant
- Cigar plant
And finally, here are the common myths that these experts would love to dispel:
- They live on sugar water.
- They don’t have feet.
- You have to take feeders down in the fall or they won’t migrate.
- They only feed on red tubular flowers.
- (And the biggie ...) They migrate on the backs of geese.