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Luring the elusive hummingbird

April 28, 2010

From University of Illinois Extension Garden packet

URBANA, Ill.—A sure sign that spring has truly arrived and summer is not far behind is the return of the hummingbirds, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Their rapid, darting flight is unlike any other creature in the garden,” said Jennifer Schultz Nelson. “Many people want to attract hummingbirds to their garden, and luckily it’s relatively easy to do.

“Hummingbirds are uniquely an American bird,” Schultz Nelson added. “They are found only in the Western Hemisphere, in North and South America. There are between 325 and 340 species of hummingbirds in the world, depending on how the birds are classified.”

Most of these nearly 340 species live in the tropics. Seventeen species regularly nest in the United States. Near the border of the United States and Mexico, there may be a few additional species that visit the United States but do not nest. Most regions of the United States have only one or two nesting species. East of the Mississippi River, it has been observed that the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only nesting species.

“In addition to sightings of the ruby-throated hummingbird, there have been confirmed sightings of other species, such as rufous, broad-billed, and Allen’s hummingbird,” she noted.

The ruby-throated hummingbird has a green back and light belly. The male has a bright red patch on his neck and throat called the gorget. These stiff feathers are highly reflective and typically bright in color. They will look dark and dull until they catch the light and their metallic beauty is revealed.

“Scientists are concerned about increased sightings of hummingbirds outside of their normal range,” she said. “Are changes in weather altering their typical migration paths and winter or summer homes? This remains to be seen.

“If you see a hummingbird hanging around your garden that does not look like our familiar resident, the ruby-throated hummingbird, please contact your local Extension office or Audubon Society so that the bird can be properly identified.”

Hummingbirds have extremely fast metabolisms, necessary to power the rapid beating of their wings. Combined with their tiny size, this means they must eat nearly constantly.

“They consume most of their calories with their specialized beaks from sugary nectar produced in flowers,” she said. “Their beaks are narrow enough to get to the bottom of flowers where nectar is produced, and their grooved tongue laps up the nectar.

“A hummingbird will typically consume more than their body’s weight in nectar each day,” she added. “They will also eat an occasional insect or spider for additional nutrients, especially when feeding young.”

It has been said that hummingbirds are always within a few hours of starving to death. They typically have only enough energy stored in their body to get them through the night. If the temperature dips unexpectedly at night or there is some other demand on their energy at night, hummingbirds may slip into “torpor.” Torpor is a very deep sleep-like state in which the bird’s metabolism slows down and their body temperature drops. If this state lasts longer than one night, it could be called hibernation.

The one time of year that hummingbirds do store up more than a night’s worth of energy is migration. When the ruby-throated hummingbird migrates to Mexico each fall, it crosses the Gulf of Mexico on a non-stop flight lasting 18 to 20 hours.

“Hummingbirds are typically not very social birds,” she said. “This is thought to be partially due to competition for food. Flowers produce nectar relatively slowly, so individual hummingbirds tend to stake a claim and defend their favorite flowers.”

Flowers that attract hummingbirds tend to be red or orange in color and tubular shaped. They may also point downward, making it easy for a hovering hummingbird to gain access. To attract hummingbirds, try planting bee balm (Monarda didyma), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) or sage (Salvia splendens).

Another option for attracting hummingbirds is to use a feeder filled with sugar water to mimic nectar. There are many styles available, made of glass or plastic. Invest in one that is easy to fill and clean. Keeping feeders clean is essential to prevent mold from growing, which can sicken or even kill hummingbirds. Change the nectar solution every three to five days to prevent mold growth and fermentation.

“There are lots of instant nectar products available for use in hummingbird feeders,” she said. “But many bird experts would argue that the best ingredients are probably in your kitchen right now: sugar and water.”

To make nectar, add 1 cup of sugar to 4 cups of boiling water. Stir until sugar dissolves, cool the solution, and fill your feeders. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to one week. Red food coloring is not necessary and may harm hummingbirds.

“Enjoy hummingbirds while they’re here,” said Nelson. “Before we know it, summer will fade, and they will begin their long migration to Mexico.”

From the April 28-May 4, 2010 issue

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