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By REBECCA SLOAN



Published: Sun, July 1, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By REBECCA SLOAN

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

HEY COME AND GO IN A FLASH, entrancing with their minuscule proportions, fragile feistiness and fancy, jewel-colored feathers.

When we see one, we stop to stare, spellbound by the busy buzz of those fast-beating wings and dizzy from following those daring acrobatic swoops and dives.

Next to bluebirds and butterflies, none of summer's creatures can fascinate and delight like the hummingbird.

There are plenty of ways to attract these winged wonders to the back yard and to keep them coming back each season.

Planting a hummingbird garden rife with colorful flowers or investing in a hummingbird feeder and keeping it filled with a simple solution of sugar and water are the surest methods.

Hummingbirds have no sense of smell, so it doesn't matter how fragrant the flower garden is; what matters is how it looks.

Attractive flowers: Favorite hummingbird flowers in the perennial category are: bee balm, columbine, coral-bells, four-o'clocks, hollyhock, hosta, lupine and yucca. Preferred annuals are: beard tongue, fire spike, fuchsia, impatiens, petunia, red salvia and scarlet sage.

Hummingbirds also love vines such as honeysuckle, morning glory and trumpet vine, and shrubs and trees such as azalea, butterfly bush, flowering quince, mimosa and red buckeye.

Although hummingbirds prefer nature's nectar to the man-made version found in the hummingbird feeder, feeders are undoubtedly one of their favorite feeding places.

Hummingbird feeders come in a variety of shapes and styles and can range from $6 to $50. Experts recommend red in the feeder's design.

Although hummingbirds are attracted to red like a moth to a flame, experts also warn against mixing red food coloring into the sugar water solution because it is harmful.

If the feeder has a red base or a red vessel to hold the sugar water, there should be plenty to interest hummers without food coloring.

Solution recipe: To make a sugar water solution, mix four parts water with one part sugar and boil the mixture until the sugar is dissolved. Never use honey or artificial sweeteners in place of sugar. Honey spoils quickly and can become poisonous, and artificial sweeteners provide no calories, which means the hummer may drink but receive no nutrition.

After boiling the sugar water, let it cool before pouring it into the feeder. Hot water can damage the feeder and hurt the hummingbird. Do not fill the feeder more than halfway as the birds will not be able to drink all of the solution before it spoils.

Keeping feeders clean is important. Sugar water should be changed no less than once a week and more often in very hot, humid weather. Tiny black spots on or in the feeder indicate mold. To get rid of it, scrub the feeder with a bottle brush or fill it with sand and water and shake heartily. Do not use harsh cleaning solutions that leave a harmful residue.

Although hummingbirds love to sip nectar, their primary diet is insects. Hummingbirds rely on insects for protein and are classified as carnivores. For this reason, hummingbirds are especially vulnerable to pesticides and can die from ingesting chemicals sprayed on flowers and other plants.

Preening perch: Hummingbirds spend about 80 percent of their time perching, often preening their tiny feathers, which must be in top-notch condition for flight. Providing perches near feeders will encourage hummers to rest and will provide admirers the opportunity to observe them without having to hold their breath and keep from blinking.

Hummingbirds also love water and are attracted to shallow birdbaths in the garden.

Have a hummingbird feeder but no hummingbirds? Try hanging a red ribbon on the feeder or festooning it with a bit of orange surveyor's tape. Besides being attracted to bright colors, the birds are sensitive to ultraviolet light that is reflected by the fluorescent tape.

Territorial birds: Too many hummingbirds can incite them to scrap, quarrel and dive bomb. Putting up multiple feeders will discourage fighting, for although they are tiny and delicate-looking, hummingbirds are fiercely territorial.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the type common in this area, are native to Central America. They winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama and begin their long migration north as soon as January.

By the end of February they have traveled as far north as the Yucatan, where many stop to gorge on insects and prepare for a nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Before departing on this strenuous leg of the journey, hummingbirds will double their weight from about 3 grams to 6 grams. When they reach the Gulf Coast, they will weigh only about 2.5 grams after flying nonstop for as many as 500 miles, a trek that takes about 18 to 22 hours.

Once in North America, the hummingbird travels about 20 miles a day, feeding on insects and early blooming flowers. Hummingbirds do not travel in flocks, and contrary to one popular myth, they do not ride piggyback on larger birds during migration. A ruby-throated hummingbird's wings beat about 55 times a second, and its average flight speed is about 25 mph.

By mid-May northern migration is complete. The birds will return each year to the place where they hatched and may visit the same feeders.

Homeward bound: Southward migration begins in late August and early September. Hummingbirds still at the feeder in mid-September are from farther north on their way south and are not the same birds that were sipping nectar all summer.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to take feeders down in the fall for hummingbirds to leave. Hormonal changes, triggered by a decrease in daylight, urge hummingbirds to head south. Keeping feeders up until October can benefit hummingbirds searching for a pit stop on their way home from places like Canada.




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