Hummers Remember

In Spanish, they are rightly named joyas voladoras, “flying jewels.” A group of them is called “a bouquet,” “a glittering,” or “a hover.” They are hummingbirds and it is not too early to put up a feeder for the only species we see here in the Northeast—the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).

The migration map provided by the citizen science program Journey North is showing that hummingbirds are now mostly arriving in the Washington, DC area, so they’ll be here soon. Not long ago, these one-tenth ounce (3 gram) bundles of energy were wintering from southern Mexico to Panama. Some birds migrate north to the Yucatán, where they gain up to twice their weight in body fat. Then, at speeds up to 50 mph they make a non-stop, 600-mile, 20-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico! As you can imagine, they arrive from Texas to Florida quite famished, weighing as little as 2.5 grams.

Male Ruby-throated Hummers arrive first to set up breeding territories
photo by Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Banding studies suggest that individual birds follow a certain migratory route every year, not only arriving in the area where they were born, but within a day or two to the same feeding grounds. That’s an amazing feat of memory for an animal with a brain the size of a BB pellet!

Most people see hummers at their feeders for a few weeks from April to May, and then again in July, when some birds begin migrating south. Most birds return south in August and September. But you might be lucky enough to have a nesting pair nearby and see them throughout the summer.

The author hanging a hummingbird feeder. Photo by Linnea Sirch

Males arrive first in the spring to establish territories, and females come along about a week later. You’ll know the males from the ruby red gorgets (throat patches) they flash to attract females. This red is not a pigment, but is structural color created by the microscopic arrangement of the feathers reflecting the red wavelength of light back to the viewer. We consider the iridescent feathers of both male and female birds to be beautiful, and birds may think so too. This fascinating theme is explored by Yale ornithologist and Peabody Museum curator Richard O. Prum in his book The Evolution of Beauty (Doubleday, 2017). For an extraordinary look at hummingbirds, I highly recommend noted cinematographer Anne Johnson Prum’s Nature episode “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air” (Coneflower Productions/THIRTEEN/WNET.ORG, 2009).

You can create a good feeding ground for hummers by being among the first in the spring to put up a nectar feeder or two. There are many styles to choose from. Get one that is easy to clean. Make your own nectar by adding one-part white sugar (no honey or corn syrup) to four-parts water and heat until dissolved. Let this cool before filling the feeders. Don’t add red dye as it can be harmful. The red of the feeder will attract the birds. This sugar water can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks. Place the feeder on a pole or hang it from a branch, but not too close to a window. Be sure to clean the feeder, including feeding ports, at least once a week in the cooler spring and fall, and twice a week in hot weather. A one to ten vinegar/water solution works well.

When you see Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in bloom, hummers are arriving.
photo by Fritzflohrreynolds / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Along with feeders, it is even more important to provide hummingbirds with natural sources of nectar. A variety of red, orange, and blue tubular flowers blooming in your garden throughout the season will really bring them in. Right now, Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and native willow (Salix spp.) catkins provide nectar for hummingbirds. It also seems that hummers arrive when Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is blooming. Don’t forget native vines, such as Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans).

Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirensi) is a well-behaved CT native vine
Photo by Qwert1234 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Trumpet Vine, even though native, can really spread, so I prune the branches of mine back to two or three nodes or buds every winter (also making sure it does not go to seed) and it hasn’t caused me any problems.

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ is a great hummer magnet for a porch or patio. It’s a tender perennial here and usually not able to survive our winters.
photo by Judy Gallagher / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Other nectar plants visited by hummingbirds throughout late spring and summer include Pinkster Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides) in May, Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) and Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) in June and July, and Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) in mid- to late summer.

When Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is in bloom hummers will come to little else.
Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and Ruby-throated Hummers have evolved to be mutually dependent. The key to growing this short-lived plant in the garden is to avoid burying the plant’s crown in the winter and to leave open ground around it to seed in.

One of the most important nectar plants for hummers during the fall migration is Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis). I have this plant throughout the borders of our yard and keep quite a few growing for hummers. Plants in unwanted places are easy to pull.

Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not is an important nectar source during the fall migration.
photo by Fritzflohrreynolds / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

It’s been said that hummingbirds feed on nectar plants just for the carbohydrates they need to fuel their carnivory. Like us, hummers need protein and they get it by eating spiders and insects. It’s what they feed their young. So, this week celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by planting an oak tree that will attract up to 500 insect species, or a native shrub or vine that provides nectar for hummers. Find many more ideas and activities on the Yale Peabody Museum’s website Peabody at Home . Happy Earth Day!

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

20 thoughts on “Hummers Remember

  1. Hi Jim, we have Hummers here in Clinton from April straight thru end of September. Several groups, at least 2 nests in the local woods. They mate but the males and females don’t stay together once they’ve mated, but lots of both around thru the whole summer. Great blog! Thanks.

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  2. your article is great and filled with facts I didn’t know.
    The photos are terrific as well. Thanks Jim and hope to see you in real life soon
    Thank you for your efforts, much appreciated.
    Maishe

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  3. Jim,

    My wife Melinda Papowitz shared this post with me this morning. My feeders have been hanging for 10 days here on West Todd street in Hamden, but I have seen no takers yet. In 2019 the first male arrived at the feeders by April 20th. I would guess we have at least 2 nesting pairs that regularly come to the feeders as well as various native plants we cultivate on the property. We do have Ruby -throated here typically into September, and have seen a lone male straggler come through in late September in 2018.

    Take care,

    Gary Markowski

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    1. Thx for posting Gary nice to hear from you. I checked the Journey North map the other day and they are just arriving. As of Monday there were three individuals reported, and that was in the storm. There are lots in South Jersey now. Should be here in a few days.

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  4. Hi Jim, Great article with lots of detail on hummers in our area. I didn’t realize they come to this area in April. I normally don’t put my feeder out until May. I like how you listed so many of the flowers they feed from. Time to plant some bee balm in my yard!

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    1. Hi Carolyn, I have some I can give you! It will spread by rhizomes but can be weeded out. Also, another bee balm relative is Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) which is native to CT.

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  5. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. kudos

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  6. Thanks so much for this wonderful blog post! I just started trying to feed hummers this year, and your advice helps a lot. I will look to add hummer-friendly plants to my garden and now know how to mix up my own sugar water. Lots of interesting facts about one of my favorite birds!

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  7. Jim,
    The hummingbirds in my yard in New Haven like the Cardinal Flower, but LOVE the Royal Catchfly. After visiting every single bloom on the Royal Catchfly, she flew over to the beebalm. After one sip, she promptly returned to the Catchfly and hit every bloom again!

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    1. Wow Jess! You have Royal Catchfly? That’s great. I hear it can be a bit tricky as it likes sort of dry, well-drained soil. Did it come back for you from last year? Hummers love my scarlet bee balm and usually won’t go to anything else when it is bloom.

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