By Bill Thompson, III
Editor | Bird Watcher’s Digest
The hummingbirds are back all across North America after their absence during what felt like a long, cold winter. Now that the backyard feeders are abuzz with hummingbird activity again, many avid watchers are reminded of lingering questions about these remarkable little acrobats. Here are just a couple of the commonly asked hummingbird questions we hear at Bird Watcher’s Digest each year.
Q: Is it possible to estimate how many hummingbirds I feed each day?
A: Hummingbird experts Nancy Newfield and Bob and Martha Sargent generated a formula whereby you count the number of hummingbirds you can see at one time at your feeders and multiply this number by six to determine how many birds are visiting your feeder. They arrived at this number based on years of banding and color-marking hummingbirds at feeders.
At our feeders here in southeast Ohio, we feed a half-gallon of solution a day, and we have calculated by the above formula that we get 139 hummingbirds during the busy part of the summer. Thus each of our hummingbirds is consuming 0.46 ounces of nectar per day. There are 64 ounces in our half gallon of daily solution, so if we divide 64 (the number of ounces consumed) by 0.46 (the per-hummingbird daily consumption), we get 139 hummers at our feeders. Wow!
Although this is not strict science, it’s fun to do the calculations!
Q: How do I keep ants and bees out of the hummingbird feeder?
Select a hummingbird feeder with bee guards. These plastic devices allow the longer tongues of hummingbirds to reach the nectar. Bee guards prevent shorter insect tongues from reaching the nectar. Replace any dripping feeders.
You can also do things to discourage ants from getting to your feeders. Laundry detergent applied with a paintbrush will work. Paint whatever surface the ants use to gain access to the feeder (but not the feeder itself). The solution interferes with the ants’ chemical navigation. Refresh the application several times the first day. After a few days you won’t need it anymore.
Q: Is it true that hummingbirds at my feeder will not migrate if I leave my feeder up in fall?
A: No. This is another in a long line of bird myths. Birds are genetically programmed to migrate when their internal “clocks” tell them to do so. They will depart when the time is right whether your feeders are up or not. Leaving your feeders up in fall and getting them up early in spring may help early or late migrants that are passing through your area.
Q: Why does our male hummingbird fly in a U-shaped pattern?
A: This is the pendulum display flight of a male to a perched female. He zips back and forth and flashes his ruby throat (gorget) at her, hoping to impress her into mating with him. It is common to see this behavior in early summer.
Q: How do I foil a “bully” hummer?
A: Most hummingbird species defend feeding territories, and assemblages at feeders usually develop hierarchies. The behavior exemplifies natural selection at work, and you should do nothing except enjoy it. If you’re worried about hungry hummingbirds, put up several more feeders near your original one. The bully will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers of other birds and will quit being so territorial.