Garden Guide

Hummingbirds are here!
May. 07, 2014 @ 04:58 AM

They’re back! Have you put your feeder out? If not, you may want to because the numbers are increasing every day! The hummingbird’s tiny size doesn’t stop many of these birds from flying nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico during both the spring and fall migration.

What may be even more amazing is that in the days before beginning a migration, hummingbirds go into “hyperphagia” —  a sort of feeding frenzy in which they spend much more time than usual ingesting nectar and small insects. This increased intake of food causes the birds to put on considerable fat, so much so that a 2.5 gram male may nearly double its weight to 4.5 grams. The fat accumulated through hyperphagia is enough to enable a typical hummingbird to fly 600 miles without having to refuel. Females have been documented to live at least nine years and males at least five years.  

These birds breed in mixed woodlands and Eastern deciduous forests. In our region, they nest in pine and mixed pine situations. The hummingbirds are highly territorial during breeding season, with the male’s territory is often centered on a food source when sufficient cover is available. There is no pair bond for this species during the breeding season, as the male and female remain together only long enough for courtship and mating.

After mating, the female alone selects a nest site that is usually near the tip of a downsloping branch with openness below and a leaf canopy above. The nest is sometimes found in odd places like loops of chains, wire or extension cords. The nest height is between 1-60 feet off the ground, with an average of 15 feet. Females alone build the nest in 6-10 days that is covered with lichens. This tiny cup of wadded plant is bound with spider webbing and is only 1-2 inches high and 1.5 inches wide. The females will lay an average of 1-2 eggs in the nest. Two eggs will be formed in two days.

Feeding habits and feeders  

The hummingbird is a daytime feeder. Floral nectar and small insects and spiders are the main food, with tree sap taken when nectar is scarce. The bird prefers, but is not limited to, red tubular flowers as a nectar source. Some native favorites include: Coral Honeysuckle, Trumpet Creeper, Cardinal Flower, Buckeye, Jewelweed, Columbine, Petunias, Lantana, Coral Bells, Azaleas, Butterfly bush and Flowering Quince. These are all excellent choices to establish in your backyard to attract hummingbirds, as well as properly stocked and cleaned hummingbird feeders.

It is best to place your feeder in the shade because the nectar will remain fresh longer. If you are willing to change it more often, it is fine to hang it in the sun. The feeder should be placed out of reach from cats. Try to hang your feeder near a window so you can watch the birds eat. Nectar recipe: I have found this to be the best recipe for making your own nectar.  

1 part sugar

4 parts water 

Boil 2-3 minutes

Cool and store in refrigerator   

Never use honey or artificial sweeteners! Honey will ferment easily and can cause sores in the hummer’s mouth. Artificial sweeteners have no food value. Do not use red food coloring in your solution, as this could be harmful to the hummingbirds. Most feeders have red on them and that should be enough, but if you are in doubt that there is enough red, tie a red ribbon on the feeder. You should put up a feeder in N.C. around late March or early April.

When should you take down the feeder? The biggest misconception about hummingbirds is the belief that if you don’t take your feeder down, they won’t migrate. This is false. Males migrate several weeks ahead of immatures (new hatchlings) and females. Migration is done according to changing day length or photoperiod. Migrating hummingbirds may be helped by feeders that are left up until at least two weeks have passed since seeing your last hummer.

Feeder care  

Your feeders need to be cleaned and nectar changed every 3-4 days — more often in hotter weather. Don’t fill the feeder more than half full, because they won’t be able to drink it all before it needs to be changed. If you see black spots inside your feeder, this is mold and you will need to scrub it out with a good bottle brush. If you can’t reach it with a bottle brush, you can add some sand with water and shake the feeder to remove the mold. You should never use harsh detergent to clean your feeders. Rinse out with hot water each time you change your nectar.

If you would like more information on hummingbirds or to speak to a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer, call (919) 775-5624 Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. 

Kate Sawaya is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer for N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County.