Captivated by hummingbirds? Answers to scores of questions about this beloved bird

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird spreads her wings and tail feathers. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal.

Last of three parts

How can you find out when hummingbirds will arrive or leave your backyard during migration? What’s the best recipe for nectar for your hummingbird feeder? How is it possible for these tiny birds to consume their weight in nectar every day?

An avalanche of questions, comments and stories poured in over the past month as we’ve run a series on the wonders of hummingbirds. More than 100,000 readers visited Flying Lessons, demonstrating once again that few species stir appeal, pique curiosity and provoke excitement the way hummingbirds do. (Here’s our piece on the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and here’s our post on the males.)

We’ve pulled together answers to many of the questions and gathered links to the best advice from experts and researchers. We also want to share some of the outpouring from so many of you about how these captivating birds fit into your yards, daily cycles and hearts.

“They are magic,” wrote Bennett Dunlap, a reader from Pennsylvania. “They are like beautiful jewels,’’ wrote Linda S. Efird, who could have been speaking for all of us.

The colors of the male Ruby-throated run from the reddish-orange “gorget” at its chin to its blue-green sheen across head and back.

We’re in a remarkable period when it comes to these miniscule, mystifying and most acrobatic of birds. Scientists have learned more about hummingbirds than thought possible not long ago. That’s thanks to the light-weight tracking tools that can now ride along with them, the scientists who analyze their flight dynamics, and researchers who’ve created detailed global maps of their migrations.

Those maps, for instance, are how you can learn when the hummingbirds (or any species for that matter) will arrive in the spring and depart in the fall — right down to the week they come and go. The best version of this is available with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird animated migration maps that should be part of every birder’s tool box.

Here’s a glimpse of that free mapping tool for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, based on the reports the 900,000 birders who post sightings via Cornell’s eBird app. All that data is woven into digital animations that show how the birds move up and down the globe and pass through your part of the hemisphere. This is a static version, but see notes at the end of the post for how to use live digital tool:

Caring for hummingbirds

Scores of your questions had to do with our relationship and care for these birds with backyard feeders, nectar recipes, native plants – and when and how best to support the birds. Hummingbirds don’t rely on feeders for survival, since they gather nectar from flowers and also dine on insects and other food sources.

The hummingbird’s wings beat so fasts it’s one of the only birds that can move backward, forward and up and down like a tiny helicopter.

But feeders are an important supplement – especially when we follow some simple guides for providing healthy fluids and keeping the feeders clean and maintained. Here’s a helpful Q-and-A from the Audubon Society on hummingbirds, and here’s a link to download for a two-sheet hummingbird guide from the Cornell Lab.

One of the videos in our posts on the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird included red dye in the feeder, and several readers took us to task for even showing a kind of nectar that should be avoided. The best solutions for the birds are simple and natural, blending a mix of water and sugar. Here’s a video and summary from the Smithsonian Institute about how to make your own nectar.

Several readers asked how to fend off unwanted visitors. “How do you keep wasps away from my feeder,’’ Mike Austin wrote from southern Idaho. “Have the bees found your feeders?’’ asked another.

This can be a tough one, since all kinds of critters – from insects to such bigger birds as Baltimore Orioles – are drawn to nectar. But you can cut down on intruders with persistence and ingenuity. Here’s a smart piece full of good suggestions for fending off bees and wasps.

Hummingbirds rely on a diet of nectar and insects, eating up to their entire weight each day, the equivalent of 18 gallons of milk for a human.

How do they do it?

Many readers were fascinated by the mechanics of hummingbirds, from their flying prowess (wings beating up to 80 times a second) to the enormous appetites (feeding every 10 or 15 minutes) that it takes to maintain their high-caliber metabolism.

Shirley Walker wondered how the birds get a rest from all that dining. “How do they sleep at night without eating,’’ she asked, raising a fascinating point. Resting hummingbirds can slip into what’s called a “torpor” at night, a kind of short-term hibernation that slows down their heart rates while they sleep. Their bodies also store food they can draw on during the night.

Hummingbirds are built to battle one another for food sources and territories.

Many readers weighed in on the infighting we explored in our post on male hummingbirds, which tend to do constant battle especially over who gets access to nectar. In case you missed it, here’s a video we put together that shows the sometimes startling collisions taking place around feeders, especially in the weeks before migration.

Some hummingbird fans told us they’ve been able to cut down on the fighting by adding extra feeders to make room for all comers. Others said the number of feeders don’t seem to solve the problem – that infighting is built into these birds like a competitive streak they cannot resist.

“I know of a friend who has as many as ten feeders in close proximity,’’ wrote Terry Plumb, a reader from South Carolina. “I have seen a large number of hummingbirds feeding there at the same time, with little or no fighting.”

But most readers said they’ve seen no easing of tensions. “I put two feeders up in the front and the back of the house – and they still fight,’’ wrote Mary Cail, a reader from Charlottesville, Va.

Awe and inspiration

What scores of readers do agree on is the great joy and inspiration they take from their hummingbirds.

The birds’ tireless rounds, constantly gathering sustenance, building nests and prowling backyard gardens, put on a show that leave many of us transfixed for hours at a time.

“I Just love learning about our bird friends,’’ wrote Barb Schipper. “Just knowing some of the amazing facts helps inspire awe and care!”

The Ruby-thoated has three toes on its feet, too short to do more than grip their perches.

Bennet Dunlap, the reader from Pennsylvania, said he sits watching his hummingbirds every morning as they keep up a constant pace. “There are three that frequent our feeder and I sip coffee as they sip sugar water,’’ he wrote. “I work a lot less hard.’’

Steve and Liz Riley, whose feeders hang on the back porch of their home in Black Mountain, N.C., said they’ve come to recognize some of the birds – and even give them names. “The same birds come back year after year until we’ve gotten to know them personally,’’ said Steve.

The feeders don’t just help support the birds. They allow us a close-up, ongoing chance to watch them every day in a way that’s not possible with most species. Along the way, we get to see their beauty, impressive work-ethic and unparalleled flying skills – surely some of nature’s very best work.

As reader Jim Broyles put it, “They can certainly teach us a thing or two.”

Notes: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s tools for tracking the migration of birds are available on the lab’s website in the eBird section. You can also search for the words “status and trends,” which will take you to the prompt where you can put in the species you’d like to track. This will take you to a library of different maps that show the bird’s locations during the various seasons. This section is rich in data and can be confusing, but if you play around with the different maps, you can find tons of information about the birds. To zero in on the migration moves over the course of a year, click on the subhead for “weekly” maps. This will show you the travels the birds follow through their migration twice a year.


OUR NEW BOOK: “A Wing and a Prayer”

Can We Save Our Vanishing Birds?

A riveting journey through the research breakthroughs, risky experiments and promising campaigns to save birds across the hemisphere, the book is praised from The New York Times’ book review to Good Morning America.


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