Charmed by Hummingbirds

by Brooke Gilley

Photo Credit: Dennis Miller

To see a group of hummingbirds (also known as a charm or tune) is a marvelous thing.  I remember my first experience witnessing a charm of hummingbirds. It happened at the Woodlands Nature Station located in Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area in Western Kentucky Among the multiple native plant gardens at the Station were several hummingbird feeders and tiny, little Ruby-throated Hummingbirds flitted from feeder to feeder. It was a bit like entering Jurassic Park but with hummingbirds. Even though it was not peak migration season (which occurs in early August) for these winged jewels, I was still left in awe.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be returning to Wisconsin soon from places like Costa Rica and we need to prepare for their homecoming. How can you attract hummingbirds to your yard so that you may witness your own charm? After spending six years in Kentucky and working several Woodlands Nature Station Hummingbird Festivals, I am happy share some helpful tips.

Finding the Right Feeder

First, if you are new to feeding hummingbirds, you will need to get a hummingbird feeder.  There are a lot of choices on the market. You will want your jar to be made of glass as plastic can easily mildew. Stay away from feeders with a metal base as they can heat up quickly and potentially burn little feet or beaks. I recommend the Best-1 Hummingbird Feeder as its plastic base is easy to clean which is important in a good hummingbird feeder.  Stores such as Wild Birds Unlimited are great places to find a quality feeder.

Placing the Feeder

Photo Credit: Brooke Gilley

Now that you have your feeders, where should you put them? Please keep in mind that a male’s territory is ¼ acre in size. You may want to have more than one feeder and space them apart from each other so one male cannot hog all the goods. I hang mine from a shepherd’s hook near a spruce tree and my other feeder is near a native coral honeysuckle. Placing your feeder near a shrub provides a great hiding place if a hummingbird needs to make a quick retreat. Mid-April is a good time to put out feeders. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to take down your feeder by the 1st of October; hummingbirds will start migration regardless of the presence of feeders. Just take them down before the sugar water starts to freeze.

The Secret Recipe

You don’t need a special mix from the store to feed hummingbirds, just sugar and water. You can make as much as you need by mixing four parts water to one-part sugar. Boiling water to make the mix helps it last longer but is not required. Extra food should be refrigerated for later use. Sugar water will spoil, so if you note any fogginess in your mix, whether in the feeder or in the fridge, it is best practice to throw it out as this is an early sign of mildew. Never add red dye to your sugar water! The red food dye could be harmful to the birds and hummers will be attracted to the red color on the feeder. If stinging insects are gathering at your feeder, reduce your sugar solution to a 5 to 1 sugar ratio. A feeder with bee guards is also handy.

Can You Eat Like A Hummingbird?

Hummingbirds flap their wings up to 90 flaps per second during normal activity and upwards of 200 flaps per second during the time they are trying to find a mate. Their metabolism is so incredibly fast that they need to refuel about every 10 minutes by eating insects and nectar and visiting as many as 1,000 to 2,000 flowers per day. Each day they consume 50% of their body weight just to maintain their normal body weight of roughly 3 grams. By comparison, a nickel weighs 4.5 grams.

Hummingbirds burn from 6,600 to 12,000 calories per day. If a man had the metabolism of a hummingbird, he would have to eat almost 300 pounds of hamburger a day to keep from wasting away! You can see why having access to feeders can be very important for a hummingbird in an urban area.

Plant Some Flowers

Coral Honeysuckle
Photo Credit: Brooke Gilley

I mentioned earlier that hummingbird feeders are important in attracting hummingbirds into your own backyard. But that is not all they need. In truth, the feeder is a supplement to the natural nectar available in an area. Flowers are really what they are after. So, what does a hummingbird like in a flower? They love flowers that are tube-shaped, red, and have little scent (most birds do not have a sense of smell). Some examples are Wild Columbine, Coral Honeysuckle, and Bee Balm. Please remember about 25% of a hummingbird’s meal consists of insects. You can also choose to plant flowers that will attract insects for the ruby-throated hummingbirds to eat. Good plants for this are Purple Coneflower and Black-eyed Susan. A native plant catalog such as Prairie Nursery or Prairie Moon Nursery will have symbols that indicate a plant that is a hummingbird attractor.  

Order hummingbird friendly flowers from Wehr’s Native Plant Sale by May 1st.

If You Build it, They Will Come

If you don’t see hummingbirds in your yard soon after placing your feeders, please do not worry. It may take some time for them to find you. You may want to start out with a little bit of sugar water in your feeders and watch to see if the water level goes down, which may indicate the presence of these tiny birds.

I hope these tips help you build a Ruby-throated Hummingbird oasis and you get to experience a charm of your own.