Hummingbirds are entertaining, predictable

A female ruby-throated hummingbird moves in for some nectar.
Robin R. Robinson
A female ruby-throated hummingbird moves in for some nectar.
Posted May 11, 2012, at 12:49 p.m.

Every year, someone asks me when the hummingbirds will return. My answer is always the same: Mother’s Day. Granted, a few have already snuck back in, and a few will be tardy, but I’m always amused at how punctual they are.

On most things, I don’t envy the western United States. But I do harbor some resentment over the fact that there are 21 species of hummingbird west of the Mississippi, and just one in the east: our ruby-throated hummingbird. There are more than 340 hummingbird species, but most are in the tropics and all are limited to the western hemisphere.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds range into Canada and from there it is a 2,000-mile migration to their wintering grounds in Panama. On that route, the birds must make a direct flight of 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico to reach land again. Perhaps that explains why other hummingbirds don’t choose to live here. Probably, it’s because the habitat in the east is more generalized. We lack tall mountains and blooming deserts, which provide specialized niches for many western hummers. Furthermore, the Rockies and the Great Plains are barriers to range expansion eastward, as they are for other birds.

Those aren’t absolute barriers, though. Western hummingbirds occasionally show up, usually somewhat out of season. A hummingbird in Maine after September is prone to be a rarity. The rufous hummingbird is most apt to wander east. It is hardy enough to breed in Alaska and can tolerate cold autumn weather in Maine until the last blossom has vanished.

The bee hummingbird is the smallest animal with a backbone. Its largest cousin, the giant hummingbird of South America, is nearly as large as a starling. Hummingbirds have the largest brain of any bird relative to its size, making up 4 percent of its body mass. While some birds can hover in place, hummingbirds are the only ones capable of flying backward, as well as sideways, up, down and upside down. Their wings beat 80 times per second, and up to 260 beats per second in a courtship dive. Such dives occur when the male is zipping back and forth, doing a pendulum flight display over the head of a sitting female.

It’s a fast, exciting life. The majority don’t survive their first year. Few average longer than four years of life. According to banding records, the longest living ruby-throated hummingbird almost made it to seven.

It’s not hard to attract hummingbirds and there is no shortage of feeders for sale. The best have guards that prevent bees and insects from reaching the nectar. I prefer feeders with small reservoirs because that forces me to clean them frequently. Mold and fermented nectar are the biggest threats. I am perplexed why store-bought nectar still contains coloring. While there is no direct evidence that the coloring causes harm, red dye No. 40 was once made from coal tar and is now manufactured mostly from petroleum. In Europe, it is not considered safe for children.

It’s apparent that most of the dye passes through the bird’s body, which is notable in greenhouses where bird droppings on the benches leave a red stain. Hummingbirds are attracted to the red color, but the color of the feeder alone is more than sufficient to get the job done. Dissolve one part sugar into four parts boiling water to make homemade nectar. Table sugar closely resembles flower nectar and is the only sweetener you should consider. Boiling the water not only speeds the dissolving, but it can reduce a little bit of the chlorine in city tap water, too. Naturally, cool the nectar before putting it into the feeder and refrigerate the leftovers.

Hummingbirds are fiercely territorial and will defend a favorite feeder or flower patch. Generally, they won’t expend the energy to defend more than they need, so it’s a good experiment to see how many feeders you can put out and how widely spaced they should be to encourage multiple hummers in your backyard. Don’t worry that feeders will be their only food source. They still visit real blossoms where they augment their diets with pollen and tiny insects. Also, don’t worry about leaving your feeders out too late in September. It’s an old wives tale that feeders will delay hummingbirds from migrating. Their departure is governed by hormones and shortened daylight. Nothing will make them stay longer than they want to.

And one more popular myth to debunk: No, hummingbirds do not migrate on the backs of Canada geese.

Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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