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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!