Hummingbird Season

By Margo D. Beller @MargoDBeller

One of the nice things, among many, that makes it enjoyable to visit the Scherman Hoffman store -­ besides all the books, seed and feeders available for purchase -­ is looking out the window at the feeders. In winter the many types of ­ thistle, sunflower seed and suet feeders draw an assortment of birds that depend on this bounty to survive the winter.

However, my favorite feeder is the one that comes out at the end of spring into early summer: ­ the red­-topped hummingbird feeder.

Mike Anderson hummer 2The feeder hangs where you can see it because that allows you to see the ruby-­throated hummingbirds that visit for the “nectar” of sugar water. Of the world’s many types of hummingbirds, only the ruby­-throated visits eastern U.S. feeders such as Scherman’s every year.

The ruby throat belongs to the male. His bright green back and wings contrast with the red throat (in some light it looks black) and the white belly. John J. Audubon called the ruby-­throated hummingbird the “glittering fragment of the rainbow,” and it’s easy to understand why.

I hang a hummingbird feeder, too. I always envy Scherman Hoffman because the feeder there, at the top of the hilled driveway, seems to draw hummingbirds of both sexes sooner than my house down on the plain. I don’t see males at my feeders often, and when I do it is usually early in June when they are more interested in my flowers than my feeder.

More commonly, when I do see hummingbirds at my feeder, they are females. Females don’t have the ruby throat. Like other female birds, they are duller in color to better blend into the foliage when they are sitting on their nests. The females I see suddenly appear in earnest in mid-June into July.

When it comes to the nests, the females do all the work. Pairs are together only long enough for courtship and mating. Then the male flies off. Males tend to migrate south for the winter earlier than the females and juveniles, usually in late July or early August. Mike Anderson hummer

So that leaves the females to build a nest. As seen in Mike Anderson’s photo here, the nest is­ a small cup of moss tied together by spider webs or lichen secured to a tree branch. Here she will­ lay her eggs and then have to feed herself while incubating and, later, feeding the young.

So when a single parent female is looking for a food source, it’s nice to have a feeder hanging out there. Having plants she would like nearby, in my case the tiny pink trumpets of a coral bell, doesn’t hurt either. Other flowers a hummingbird favors include trumpet vine, bee balm, columbine, delphinium, butterfly bush, rose of Sharon and hollyhock. Later in the summer, juveniles will start coming to the feeder, too.

As I see it, the problem in parts of New Jersey is hungry deer. Most people don’t want to go to the time and trouble of growing flowers – including the ones where hummingbirds would feed - and protecting them from deer. These homeowners find it easier to allow their landscapers to fill the yard with the usual dull shrubs that don’t flower. It’s easier to put in another ilex if there’s deer damage. That’s a shame because hummingbirds like many of the native flowering plants, which are usually hardier, not liked as much by deer, and can take hot, dry, New Jersey summers.

hummer2Hummingbirds can survive without flowers. They catch insects out of the air or pull them out of spider webs. They’ll rid your yard of mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, small bees and even spiders. One particularly nice habit of theirs is picking aphids from leaves.

But even those yards with the dullest of plants will often have a hummingbird feeder hanging in front or back. Ruby-throats are fun to watch when they come feed, beating their wings at 50 or more times a second and looking more like an insect than a bird. (Here’s a fun fact: Hummingbirds are the only type of bird that can fly backwards.)

Feeding a hummingbird is simple: You buy a feeder, which will likely be red, the color that attracts the birds. Hummers don’t need special food – just boil one part sugar to four parts water. So is you use a cup of water, you use a quarter-cup of sugar. If you use two cups of water, you use a half-cup of sugar, and so on.

When the sugar has dissolved, let the liquid cool. Make sure the feeder is clean. Pour the cooled liquid in and hang the feeder on a pole or tree, preferably where you can see it. If the feeder is hanging in the sun, or if it has been very hot weather, make sure to change the liquid after three days.

Hanging a feeder doesn’t take much work, it helps a lovely species of bird and it allows you and your kids to do something that brings a bit of nature to your yard.