By the time you read this, ruby-throated hummingbirds should be visiting a nectar feeder on your back porch. They’re back early again this year. At one of my favorite websites, www.hummingbirds.net, I follow their northward journey each spring. Anyone can report their first hummers, and then all can monitor the north-bound migration.
The first migratory ruby-throats arrived on U.S. soil Feb. 23 on the Mississippi coast. By the end of March, hummers had been reported in central Missouri, southern Ohio and as far north as eastern Massachusetts. At the end of the first week in April, I detected a pattern I first observed several years ago.
When hummingbirds reach southern West Virginia, they diverge. Some go east and work their way up the east coast. Others head northwest through Kentucky and Ohio. It leaves a hummer-free gap in West Virginia and central Pennsylvania. Perhaps the cooler temperatures at higher elevations discourage movement through the mountains.
By mid-April, however, reports had come in from throughout West Virginia and much of Pennsylvania. And by Wednesday, multiple sightings had been reported from as far north as Maine, central New York and Ontario.
If you have not yet hung a nectar feeder, do it today. The nectar recipe is simple — mix one part table sugar with four parts boiling water; cool and refrigerate. Do not use honey; it can harm or even kill hummers. Red dye is unnecessary because nectar feeders are red, and that’s the color that catches hummers’ attention. If you’re offering nectar for the first time, enhance the feeder’s conspicuousness by tying an 18-inch length of red ribbon to the feeder.
For now, one or two feeders will suffice. In the spring before nesting takes place, hummer numbers at feeders usually can be counted on one hand. When young come off the nest in July, however, feeding stations attract females and their young from surrounding areas. From mid-July through August, I usually can count 10 to 20 hummingbirds at my feeders.
Inevitably, some readers ask if it’s better to buy commercially prepared nectar. Powdered mixes are OK but expensive compared with ordinary table sugar. Prepared nectars may advertise that they are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but hummingbirds satisfy their nutritional requirements from their natural foods. The nectar we provide is an energy supplement; their natural diet includes myriad soft-bodied invertebrates as well as nectar from flowers.
Other products that might tempt you are jugs of what appears to be premixed nectar. My advice is read the label. Some of these products are merely colored water to which you must add sugar. Buyer beware.
Feeding hummingbirds is like feeding seed-eating birds. It’s not necessary. Birds can find plenty of natural foods on their own. But we offer nectar to attract them to places where we can watch them simply because we enjoy them.
Another tip to pull in the early arrivals is to get one or two hanging baskets for the porch near the feeders. Colorful flowers, especially red ones, may attract attention when a single feeder does not.
And when fruit spoils, don’t throw it out. Place it in the hummingbird garden. Fruits flies and other small insects will be attracted quickly to rotten bananas, and the hummers eat these soft-bodied invertebrates. Insects provide the protein and nutrients that nectar lacks.
Another way to attract hummers is to plant native, nectar-bearing flowers. Trumpet or coral honeysuckle is probably the best single natural-nectar source. When we lived in Oklahoma, a friend who banded hummingbirds used dozens of trumpet honeysuckle tangles to keep her hummers happy. She used feeders only to bait the traps she used to capture the hummingbirds.
Other nectar-bearing plants to look for at native plant nurseries and garden centers include trumpetcreeper, cardinal flower, scarlet bee balm, eastern columbine and spotted jewelweed.
For more information about hummingbirds (and butterflies), consult a terrific new book by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops: “Hummingbirds and Butterflies” (2011, Houghton Mifflin, $14.95) is lavishly illustrated, recommends plants to attract both hummingbirds and butterflies and is priced right.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by e-mail via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.