Get ready, the hummingbirds are about to land

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Spring migration is underway. Turkey vultures and killdeer have been back for weeks. I heard an eastern phoebe on March 12. Eastern towhees returned on March 20, and I heard the first chipping sparrow of the year on April 1.

The parade of returning species will continue until early June. But the main attraction of spring migration is the return of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Their progress can be monitored online by clicking “migration map” at www.hummingbirds.net. The first ruby-throats usually arrive on the Gulf coast in February. From there, their northward movement is largely determined by weather. Michigan-based website owner, Lanny Chambers, relies on volunteers to submit reports of the first hummingbirds they see.

Hummingbird spottings

On April 8, hummingbirds had been reported all across the southeastern states. Reports had also come in from northern Missouri, central Illinois and Indiana, southwestern Ohio, southern West Virginia, northern Maryland and the southern tip of New Jersey.

By the time you read this, there may be hummingbirds in your backyard. I usually hang one nectar feeder on the back porch on April 15; the earliest record I have for a hummingbird is April 22. I plan to get a feeder up today so it will be there when the hummers return.

Look for red-throated males to return about a week before females. The nectar recipe is simple — mix one part table sugar with four parts hot 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 appeal by tying an 18-inch length of red ribbon to the feeder.

Can get messy

Though preparing hummingbird nectar is simple, it often gets messy. I usually spill sugar on the counter top, and it takes more time to clean up the mess than to make the nectar. So I’m delighted to tell you about an ingenious new product that takes the mess out of making nectar.

At a trade show last fall, I discovered “Nectar Aid,” a “proportional nectar mixing system” that takes measuring table sugar out of the process. Nectar Aid is a patented, 48-oz. microwaveable mixing pitcher. Simply insert a divider that separates the pitcher into two parts. Fill the smaller compartment with sugar and fill the other side to the same level with water, then mix. The design of the pitcher assures that you always get the perfect one part sugar to four parts water recipe.

You can make as much or as little as you like, and the pitcher can be stored in the refrigerator. No more measuring sugar and trying to get the recipe just right. Look for Nectar Aid at wild bird stores and nature centers. For details, visit www.nectaraid.com.

Feeders

For now, one or two feeders will suffice. In the spring, before nesting begins, hummer numbers at feeders can usually be counted on one hand. When young come off the nest in July, however, feeding stations attract females and young from surrounding areas. From mid July through August, I can usually count 10 to 20 hummingbirds at my feeders. I’m often asked if commercially prepared nectar is better than the homemade recipe made with table sugar.

Boxed mixes are OK, but they are expensive compared to table sugar. I prefer to make my own nectar. Boxed nectar mixes also may advertise that they are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but hummingbirds satisfy their nutritional requirements from natural foods, including soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, aphids and flies, which make up at least 50 percent of their diet. Other products often sold at big box stores that might tempt you are jugs of what appear to be premixed nectar.

Read the label, however, and you may find that these products sometimes require added sugar. It’s just colored water that lacks the most important and expensive ingredient.

For our pleasure

Feeding hummingbirds is like feeding winter birds. It’s not necessary. Birds can find plenty of natural foods. But we offer nectar to attract hummingbirds to places where we can watch them simply because we enjoy them.

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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. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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