One of America’s favorite backyard birds

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Anna's hummingbird

At 6:30 p.m. April 10, Linda and I sat on our patio enjoying a chorus of mockingbirds and song sparrows. Suddenly a familiar buzz caught our attention.

The first ruby-throated hummingbird of the season stopped at the nectar feeder.

One of the perks of living in North Carolina is that we see migrants well before they return to West Virginia.

Coincidentally, just a few days earlier my daughter Emma, who lives in Los Angeles, asked me to send her one of my spare nectar feeders. She and three roommates live in a small house that has a lemon tree in the tiny backyard.

She had just seen a hummingbird in the tree and thought a feeder might tempt it to return. Emma didn’t know what kind of hummer it was, so she sent me a photo.

It was a gorgeous adult male Anna’s hummingbird, the only North American hummer with a mostly red (magenta) head. The day after she hung the feeder the hummer returned, and it has been back every day since.

Hummingbirds’ tiny size, iridescent colors, acrobatic flying ability, and eagerness to use nectar feeders make them one of America’s favorite backyard birds.

Migration schedule

Males return before females in the spring and establish feeding territories. Fiercely protective of their nectar sources, males spend as much time chasing competitors from “their” food supplies as actually feeding.

When females arrive a few days to a week after males, courtship begins. The male performs aerial displays while the female watches from a nearby perch. He flies back and forth in a wide semicircle. After mating, the promiscuous male goes on to find another female.

The female builds a nest about the size of a walnut on a small horizontal branch 5 to 20 feet above the ground. She uses sticky spider silk to fasten bits of leaves or bud scales to the branch. Over a span of days, she builds a compact elastic cup, lines it with soft plant fibers, and camouflages the outside with bits of lichen.

The female incubates two tiny eggs for about 16 days. Young hummingbirds fledge about three weeks after hatching in late June to early July.

Hummingbird Q&A

Q. How many species of hummingbirds live in the U.S.?

A. Sixteen, but only ruby-throated hummingbirds nest regularly east of the Mississippi River. The female lacks the male’s bright red throat, so some people mistakenly believe two species visit their feeders.

• • •

Q. When should I put up my nectar feeder?

A. Today.

• • •

Q. What’s the recipe for nectar?

A. Add one part table sugar (no honey) to four parts hot or boiling water. Hot water simply allows the sugar to dissolve faster. Stir, cool at room temperature, and store in the refrigerator. Red dye is unnecessary.

• • •

Q. How can hummingbirds survive if they just sip sugar water?

A. They can’t. Sugar is rich in calories, but nutritionally empty. Hummers drink nectar for the calories — the energy. They obtain nutrition by eating soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, flies, aphids, and gnats. Nectar usually makes up less than half their total diet.

• • •

Q. Is there a “best” nectar feeder?

A. Any red nectar feeder will catch the attention of hummingbirds, but it must be easy to clean. Saucer style feeders or big-mouth bottles work well. Rinse the feeder and change the nectar every three days and wash it with hot soapy water once a week.

• • •

Q. What else I can do to attract hummingbirds?

A. Plant red, tubular, nectar-bearing flowers. Trumpet honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, jewelweed and bee balm are all hummingbird favorites. Another way to provide live food is to offer overripe bananas. Hummers have a field day feasting on the fruit flies that inevitably appear.

• • •

Q. How can I keep ants out of my hummingbird feeders?

A. An ant guard is an inexpensive moat-like saucer from which you hang the feeder. Fill the moat with salad oil or dish detergent, and ants get trapped in the liquid when they try to cross the moat. Some nectar feeders come with built-in ant guards.

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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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