If you haven't put up your hummingbird feeder, you're late. I saw a ruby-throated hummingbird on April 29, and many of you reported them before that.
Make your own nectar with table sugar and water. Mix one part table sugar with four parts boiling water, mix, cool, then store in the refrigerator. It keeps for weeks. Red dye is unnecessary, and do not use honey as a sweetener; it can promote a fungus that kills hummers.
Source of energy
Remember, nectar is purely a source of energy. Hummers get their nutrition from soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, flies, gnats, and other insects. The nectar we provide merely fuels the metabolic engine that enables hummers to beat their wings 55 to 75 times per second.
Resist the temptation to purchase pre-mixed "nectar." Let me tell you about two "nectar" products I've purchased at Wal-Mart and K-Mart. I keep the jugs in my office as a reminder.
The product I bought at Wal-Mart comes in a red plastic jug containing 58 ounces of "Hummingbird Food; patent pending." The largest print on the label reads "natural springs nectar." Sounds great. But if you buy this product ($2.48), you will be disappointed when you fill your feeders with it. Hummers will ignore it. That's because you probably overlooked the smaller print above the "Hummingbird Food" line that reads, "Before using, remove cap from bottle and add sugar." That's right. You're paying $2.48 for 58 ounces of water.
At K-Mart, I found a similar "value"-- a full 64 ounces of "Beautiful Gardens Hummingbird Nectar" for just $2.99. The small print on this labels reads, "Closely resembles the nectar of flowers when mixed with sugar."
Read the label
Buyer beware. Read the labels. Better yet, just make your own nectar with the recipe I gave earlier.
The first hummingbirds to arrive each spring are males. They quickly set up territories around food sources.
Fiercely protective of their energy supplies, males seem to spend more time chasing competitors away from "their" food sources than actually feeding. But food attracts females, and that's the name of the game.
When females arrive a few days to a week later, courtship begins. The male performs aerial displays while the female looks on from a nearby perch. He flies back and forth in a wide semicircle, like a weight tied to a string.
In one variation, the female joins the flight, and the pair hovers, facing each other. Then they dance. Sometimes in sync, sometimes alternately, they move up and down in ritualized style. Then they mate, and the promiscuous male goes on to find another female.
The burden of family life lies completely with the female. She builds a tiny nest on a small horizontal branch five to 20 feet above a stream or other open spot. She begins by using sticky spider silk to fasten bits of leaves or bud scales to the branch.
Over a span of days she builds an elastic cup about the size of a walnut. She lines the nest with soft plant fibers and camouflages the outside with bits of lichens. From the ground the nest now passes for an inconspicuous knot.
After laying two tiny eggs, she incubates them for about 16 days. This is an incredibly long incubation period for a bird that weighs less than a nickel.
But because the female tends her nest alone, she must leave it periodically to eat. When she leaves, the eggs cool a bit. The price of single parenthood is an extended incubation period.
Young hummingbirds leave the nest about three weeks after hatching. If they survive climbing snakes, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer mice while in the nest, juvenile hummingbirds face a dizzying array of dangers.
Sharp-shinned hawks may snatch them from the air as they learn to fly. They may become ensnared in spider webs if they fly carelessly. If they get too close to the water's edge, bullfrogs will swallow them whole. And even in a bed of nectar-bearing flowers, they might be ambushed by a preying mantis.
Hummingbirds have a tough life. The least we can do is provide a little nectar.