Early visitors this year: Hummingbirds are back

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Bird migration epitomizes spring. But unless you spend a lot of time outdoors with binoculars, or you really know bird songs, the players often pass through unidentified.

Hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the exception. Hang a nectar feeder, and you’ll know when they arrive. And thanks to a Web site that maps hummers as they return, you can know when to put those feeders up.

Ruby-throats are back earlier than ever this year, so get your feeders up today. My earliest record for a hummer is April 22, so I get at least one feeder up by the 15th, just in case. But this year I put a feeder up a week ago. According to a Web site that relies on volunteers to report hummingbird sightings (www.hummingbirds.net/map.html), ruby-throats are four days to two weeks ahead of schedule.

Early arrival

On March 26, one was reported in northern Virginia. On March 30, one crossed into southern Indiana. By April 6, they had reached the thumb of Michigan, central New York, and Ontario. On April 7, they arrived on Cape Cod and in southern New Hampshire. And Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia had reports statewide.

Blame it on a week of 80 degree days in early April and early insect activity — hummers are back. In recent years I’ve watched this online map to track hummer movements, and there was always a predictable trend.

As the birds headed north, they’d split into two routes in southern West Virginia. Half stayed west of the mountains as they traveled north through Ohio. The rest stayed east of the Appalachians and headed up the east coast. They seemed to avoid the spine of the mountains.

But not this year

Numerous reports from central West Virginia and western Pennsylvania have convinced me I’ll see my earliest hummer this year. I expect ruby-throats on my porch by the time you read this. So unpack and rinse the feeders, and fill them with nectar.

Nectar recipe

The recipe for hummingbird nectar (and orioles, too) 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.

Store bought

Inevitably some readers ask if it’s better to buy commercially prepared nectar. Powdered mixes are OK, but expensive compared to 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 and nectar from flowers.

Other products that might tempt you are jugs of what appears to be premixed nectar.

My advice is, “Read the label.” Let me describe two items I’ve purchased at big box stores in recent years. I keep the empty jugs with receipts in my office as proof. The label on “Beautiful Gardens Hummingbird Nectar” (64 oz., $2.99) reads, “Closely resembles the nectar of flowers when mixed with sugar.” The emphasis is mine.

The label on “Natural Springs Nectar” (58 oz., $2.48) reads, “Contains mineral water enriched with vitamins and additional minerals found in the nectar of flowers used by the hummingbird.”

The instructions read, “Before using, remove cap from bottle and add sugar.”

Lesson learned

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 option is to plant native, nectar-bearing flowers.

Trumpet honeysuckle, trumpetcreeper, cardinal flower, scarlet bee balm, eastern columbine, and spotted jewelweed are just a few species that attract hungry hummers.

Long trip. One more note — when your hummers return, appreciate the effort they’ve made to get to your backyard.

Weighing just four or five grams (about a sixth of an ounce), they’ve traveled from as far south as Panama. And contrary to popular opinion, they make the trip on their own.

Hummingbirds do not hitch rides on the backs of other birds.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

9 Comments

  1. Fran says:

    We live in Southwest Ohio in a rural area and our hummingbirds arrived on time but about a month ago they all disappeared. I have talked to some friends and they also have not seen as many hummingbirds this year. Where have they gone? Has anybody else noticed them gone this year?

  2. Marsha says:

    we have seen only 1 at a time and them only the male, I thought by now we would be seeing many as in last year. I also was trying to find out who has or has not seen them and why, I live in north central texas. tHANK YOU mARSHA

  3. MARY says:

    WE LIVE IN SOUTHERN ILLINOIS WE ALWAYS HAVE HAD A LOT BUT THIS YEAR ONLY ONE HERE AND THERE. NOTHING

  4. Ayuko says:

    I live in Northern Virginia and hummingbirds typically come to our area in June but this year, I have not seen them. Has anyone seen hummingbirds this year in Fairfax, Virginia?

  5. Carin says:

    I live in Northern Virginia, too. I have had only two sightings (female) at my feeder in Falls Church. My friend in Annandale who closely monitors his feeders also has had only a few sightings, all female.

    I’m curious, too, about why we haven’t seen the usual number of hummingbirds.

  6. cathy says:

    I live in Greensburg, Pa and had some hummers early in the season but the past few weeks haven’t seen hardly any. I keep filling my feeders but still nothing. What happened?

    • Judy says:

      Hi Cathy. I live in Latrobe and have seen only one hummer around the second week of May. It didn’t stay. I am also wondering what happened. Will let you know when they arrive. Enjoy your summer. Judy

  7. Brenda says:

    I live in Elkton Maryland in Cecil County and saw 2 hummingbirds about a month ago…but, that is all I’ve seen this year. Previous years, I have seen many. Has something happen to the birds?

  8. Debbie says:

    I live in Elkton Maryland too and have many hummers at my feeders. They did leave for about 3 weeks but are back and very active. I have seen 3 and 4 at a time fighting at the feeders and they will come on the porch and just look at me. It is awesome.

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