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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.