I’ll be venturing out of New England for a few days and don’t want the birds here to think I forgot about them so I’m instituting my own Hummingbird Week. Each day this week I’ll post a new or old photo of a ruby-throated hummingbird, the only hummer that occurs regularly in New England. There is no such thing as too many hummingbird photos, after all. Each day will also include a joke or fun fact about hummingbirds.
Fun fact: Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder at the Errol (N.H.) Motel in the summer of 2015.
I’ll be venturing out of New England for a few days and don’t want the birds here to think I forgot about them so I’m instituting my own Hummingbird Week. Each day this week I’ll post a new or old photo of a ruby-throated hummingbird, the only hummer that occurs regularly in New England. There is no such thing as too many hummingbird photos, after all. Each day will also include a joke or fun fact about hummingbirds. Let’s kick it off with this classic …
Here are the last two For the Birds columns, mostly focused on what readers have been seeing this spring.
If the past season was the Winter of the barred owl, this is the spring of the indigo bunting.
I’ve heard from numerous readers and friends throughout New England and even Canada about this bright blue bird visiting their backyards. The cause for excitement is obvious as it is one of our more colorful birds, flashing a brilliant blue plumage. The brilliance of the blue plumage is dependent upon the light.
It is also nice to hear that so many of these birds are around and delighting backyard birders in large numbers. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are another popular bird this spring. I’ve had limited luck with indigo buntings this spring, but for me, it’s been a banner year for rose-breasted grosbeaks. I’ve seen as many as three males in a tree overhanging my feeders. A female visits the feeders often as well.
It’s also been a good spring for warblers and nearly every walk last week yielded yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, black-and-white warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, American redstarts and yellow-rumped warblers.
The ruby-throated hummingbirds came back a bit late this year, to my yard anyway. Last year it was late April. This year it was early May. Regardless, they are back and buzzing around like they own the place.
Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers. Yes, back-to-back hummingbird columns.
The hummingbird questions kept coming, so why not devote one more column in 2018 to these little charmers?
This time the question came from Pamela, whose hummingbird feeders in East Alstead are “covered with yellow jackets,” and preventing the intended targets from visiting.
“The poor hummers can’t get near it! The yellow jackets drank the whole thing in one day,” she wrote.
I think we can all relate to this quandary. Whether it’s ants, yellow jackets, or as was my case earlier this summer, raccoons, keeping hummingbird feeders open and available for hummingbirds can be a challenge.
When the raccoons ravaged my hummingbird feeders nightly this summer, I got fed up and simply moved the feeder a few feet way to the clothesline. No more raccoon problem. The hummingbirds found it just fine and actually appreciate the extra-long perch.
So how does that relate to yellow jackets, which certainly aren’t going to be daunted by flying a few feet to the left or right? Well, according to some experts in the field, that just might be enough to discourage yellow jackets.
The educational and fun website Journey North states that insects are “only likely to visit convenient sources and probably won’t search for relocated feeders.”
So, if you’re hummingbird feeder is inundated by yellow jackets, ants or some other insects, try moving it somewhere close so the birds can find it, but still in a place where you can see and enjoy it.
If that doesn’t work and the insects still take over, Journey North offers more tips on discouraging yellow jackets from visiting hummingbird feeders.
First, the site cautions against using cooking oil, petroleum jelly or any other oily substance that can get onto the birds’ feathers.
Clean the feeders regularly. If the sugar water spills or leaks, clean it up and rinse with water. It doesn’t take a genius to know sugar water is going to attract bugs (my words, not Journey North’s).
Use feeders designed to keep insects away.
“Feeders with saucers position the nectar away from the feeding port where long-tongued hummers can reach nectar, but insects cannot,” the site reads. Or, you can try installing insect traps that are sold in bird and hardware stores.
Insect guards placed in the holes of feeders can also be useful, but don’t use yellow ones as bees are attracted to yellow. Yellow guards already attached to the feeder may be painted red with non-toxic paint.
Speaking of red, remember the “nectar” in the feeder does not need to be red, and, in fact, dyes should be avoided. One part sugar to four parts water is all that’s needed.
Because I borrowed so much from Journey North, I’ll add a bit more information about the site and encourage you to check it out. Journey North for more than 25 years has been a citizen science project in North America for children and the public at large. Sightings of creatures, such as hummingbirds and butterflies, are recorded and mapped in real-time to track migration patterns.
One more tip about feeding hummingbirds this time of year. Last week we established that it is OK to keep feeding hummingbirds into the fall and it will not impact their instinct to head south. So, if you are going to keep feeding hummers for as long as possible, make sure the feeder is filled.
At this time of year, with migration on their minds, they are filling up as much as possible. One day, or even a few hours, with an empty feeder could cause the birds to seek food elsewhere and they may not come back until next year.
Good luck and let me know what you’re seeing out there.
A question from Lida in Harrisville came in the other day that I found interesting for two reasons. The question was: “What is the current thinking on when to stop feeding hummingbirds?”
She recalled a time when it was suggested that people stop feeding hummingbirds in August so that the birds would be encouraged to fly south. She added that her feeders remained active with lots of hummingbirds.
The question at face value is interesting because I’m sure it is on a lot of people’s minds now that summer unwinds and fall looms. The question is also interesting because it got me thinking about how opinions change over time depending on knowledge available. This is true for birdwatching and any aspect of life, really.
In the birdwatching world, for instance, the names of bird species change fairly regularly. Long-tailed ducks were oldsquaws not too long ago. Rufous-sided towhees are now eastern towhees. Dark-eyed juncos are either one species with different forms or several individual species, depending on the current thoughts of ornithologists.
It was once taught to never touch a baby bird because the parent will smell human scent and reject the youngster. While it’s true that it is usually best to not touch a baby bird because the parent is likely nearby, a mother bird will not reject a bird because it has human scent on it.
It was once thought that birds are unintelligent, hence the term “bird brain.” Well, we all know that’s not true now.
Now back to the question at hand: When should we stop feeding hummingbirds? Coincidentally, a recent issue of Birds and Blooms magazine addressed this very topic in a myth-buster type of article featuring its bird and garden experts.
The magazine’s bird experts, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, wrote that hummingbirds will fly south when they are ready, regardless of whether there are feeders available or not. The Kaufmans wrote that the powerful instinct to migrate is much stronger than a backyard hummingbird feeder. They wrote to “feel free” to keep feeders up as long as there are hummingbirds around.
Given that a hummingbird’s natural instinct is to fly south when the time is right, I would offer a reason to keep filling your hummingbird feeder for as long as possible. Hummingbirds need a lot of energy to make their long journey to Central America. A quick fill-up at New England backyard feeder or garden can give the birds a nice head start on their arduous adventure — just like most people fill up their cars before heading out on a vacation.
Also, let’s say a hummingbird is injured or otherwise unable to fly south when their instincts tell them to do so. A reliable food source while the bird waits out the delay could be important to the bird’s survival.
As of this weekend, I still have my share of ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit the feeder, canna, salvia and fading geraniums. It’s good to hear from the experts that feeding them is not disrupting their natural behaviors.
Photo by Chris Bosak A male ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., spring 2018.
I saw my first hummingbird of the year about 10 days ago. It paid my feeder a quick visit in the morning and I never saw it again. He must have been on his way northward and stopped for a quick pitstop. But now, the hummingbirds are back for real. A male has been visiting my feeder about every 20 minutes for the last three days. A few times it had to fight off a few rivals to keep its territory. Hummingbirds are small and cute, but fiercely territorial.