Hummingbirds, Little Flying Jewels
I’ll never forget that warm spring day. I had just started outside to survey my gardens when a tiny shimmering green female hummingbird came speeding toward me at eye level. My first reaction was, of course, to move my head back to avoid what I thought to be a certain collision. Instead, she suddenly stopped about a foot from my face and hovered for a few seconds looking into my eyes, then sped away to the newly-hung nectar feeder.
After I gathered myself from being so startled, I had a flash of insight---she was saying ‘hello’ and showing appreciation for the ready food source after her long journey!
Ruby Throated Hummingbird
It’s the first week in May and I am busy in the kitchen mixing up a batch of hummingbird nectar. (recipe follows) You know the male hummingbird will be along any day now, and I want to make sure he has a concentrated food source after his long journey. He’s coming all the way from South America across the Gulf of Mexico, my little ruby throated hummingbird!
He’ll arrive first and the females will follow in about a week. The last time I heard them buzzing about my bushes and saw them sipping nectar from the feeders was September. I have missed their beautiful shimmering green blur as they zoom around the house and gardens.
The females will arrive just in time for the lilacs to be blooming, then the honeysuckle and red weigela shrubs, as well as the Korean spice bush. I have planted many things to entice my flying jewels to make my gardens their home for the summer.
Soon after they have recovered from their long journeys the male hummer will start his pendulum mating dance. I once was able to catch sight of this amazing event, and since then I listen very closely for the sound that accompanies it. If you imagine what a small whirring spaceship might sound like, and then imagine it swinging like a pendulum you will have an idea of what the little male hummer does to entice a female.
She will be watching from a little plant or shrub close to the ground transfixed and motionless. If after he has performed his amazing feat she has not responded, he might knock her to the ground to awaken her from her trance.
They might then suddenly both fly off together, or she alone, depending upon her decision.
Persistence pays off for the male, and he eventually finds a female who thinks his acrobatic feat is awesome. For several weeks my hummers seem to have deserted me. That is not the case, however. They are simply tending to their new family. Because of the inactivity, I realize that the nectar feeder needs to be emptied and freshly refilled. Sugar water goes sour, especially when it is very warm.
Hummingbird Feeder Maintenance
Cleaning the hummingbird feeder inside as well as the ports from which they drink is essential. I use a small bottle brush and a mild dish detergent with warm water. Then rinse the bottle and ports thoroughly with clean warm water and allow to dry before refilling with fresh sugar water. This time I will only fill it half full. Once the breeding season is done, they will be back in full force. I can then fill my feeders to the top again.
Hummers build their nests using spider silk to attach them to a native tree branch. Being only the size of a golf ball, they are nearly invisible to human eyes. Hummingbirds use soft moss, to line the nest, but attach bits of tree bark and lichens to the outside of the nest for camouflage. I found a hummer nest once. It had blown out of a small tree in an early winter blizzard, and it laid on the snow. I thought it was a mouse nest at first, but it was much too small and well constructed to be anything but a hummingbird’s fairy nest.
Once the little hummers are ready to fly from the nest, Mama Hummingbird shows them the nectar feeder and all the other lovely plants from which to sup. Sweet syrup is not the only food for these aggressive and territorial mighty mites. They also happily pluck insects from spider webs, and if the spider is small enough that might make a tasty snack as well.
Hummers Are Aggressive!
Hummers aggressively guard and defend their territory and the food sources therein. I have seen what amounts to aerial combat between rival hummingbirds. They bang into one another, knock each other sideways, and fly upwards with beaks crossed as if they were swords. One will land on a branch and wait to ambush any ruby throat that should dare to attempt sipping from its food source. After awhile that even includes their own offspring!
Select a feeder that is clear so you can easily see when it needs to be refilled. Nectar does not need red dye. A bit of red somewhere on the feeder is enough to attract these energetic little guys. If the feeder you fall in love with does not have any red on it, just tie a small red ribbon to the hanger, or add a potted red plant such as a geranium near your hummer feeder.
I have a shepherds hook with 2 hangers. One holds a pot of fuschia and the other holds my beautiful purple hummingbird feeder. Both are visited constantly all day long. There is a link below to a list of hummingbird nectar plants you can use in your own gardens.
My favorite feeders are glass because mold doesn’t seem to grow as easily in them. They stay clear and are easier to clean than the plastic, but that is a personal preference. You may also need some sort of ant deterrent. That calls for a device known as an ant ‘moat’ that is filled with water and suspended above the feeder. Ants cannot cross the moat without drowning and are thus unable to clog up your nectar with ant bodies!
While visiting my sister in California many years ago, I got a good look at an Anna’s Hummingbird. Having always seen our ruby throated gems it was quite a thrill to observe the different coloring. Its whole head was a beautiful red and the back and wings were a gleaming dark blue green.
Although I have never seen one in person, Rufous Hummingbirds are gorgeous orange-throated flyers with shimmering copper colored backs and wings. As much as I love our beautiful ruby throats, the rufous is my favorite hummer. Its colors remind me of the best time of year---autumn. They can be found as far north as the Yukon and as far south as Mexico.
The tiny Calliope is the winner in the ‘smallest hummingbird’ contest. It is only 2-¾” to 3-¼” (7-8 cm). It is very colorful with a deep reddish-purple throat against a white background, white front, green back and orange at the base of its tail. Oddly, its beak is short! Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico are its stomping grounds.
Allen’s Hummer has a red-orange throat, an orange tail, green back and head and dark beak. It lives year round along the Pacific coastline.
The most prevalent hummingbird in New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California is the little jewel known as Costa’s Hummingbird. It has a deep purple throat, gray belly, white front, dark green back, white accent under its eye and a dark down-curved beak. For a tiny package, hummingbirds pack a huge punch of color and energy.
Time to Say Goodbye
It is now nearing the second week in September. I will soon be sadly bidding my hummers farewell for the winter season. One year I happened to be outside tending my garden, stood up to stretch my back, and a female hummingbird came right at me at eye level. I recoiled a bit as a natural reaction and then realized that she was saying “goodbye, see you next year, and thanks for the chow”! Amazingly, this happens every year now. In spring they find me outside and say ‘hello’; in autumn they make sure (if I am outside on their day of departure) to say ‘goodbye’.
One year I missed my hummers’ leaving because I had to be out of town. I felt bad I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. That is why I will make sure to be working in my garden this coming week when they will depart. You see we have a very special bond, my little flying jewels and me!
My Easy Hummingbird Nectar Recipe
I use a 32 oz. Pyrex glass measure because it has a convenient spout and I can easily see the measurement lines. Add pure cane sugar to the ½ cup line on the quart measuring cup. Then fill it to the 2-½ cup line with cold water. Stir with a wooden spoon and place uncovered into the microwave. Times will vary with the size and power of your microwave, but mine takes 2 minutes on High to come to a simmer. After removing my homemade nectar from the microwave, I stir again to make sure all the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. Allow the nectar to cool to room temperature before filling your feeders. Refrigerate any remaining nectar to use at the next refill. I use a Mason jar with a regular, tight fitting screw-on lid.
It is very important to note that you must use only pure cane sugar. Artificial sweeteners or honey are deadly to hummers and should never be used as nectar. Hummingbirds cannot assimilate these sweeteners and therefore can gain no nutrition from them.
If hanging more than one feeder, it’s a good idea to position them out of the line of sight of any others. That will help alleviate aggressive attacks on one another.
Track hummingbirds country-wide
List of nectar plants that attract hummingbirds
- Hummingbird Nectar Plants
A list of flowers that will surely attract hummingbirds and butterflies to your yard and gardens.
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