ATHENS, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Hummingbirds are emblems of tenacity – tiny, feisty, iridescent survivalists that fly like miniature helicopters. But despite their popularity and how common it is to feed them outside your windows, they are also among North America’s most misunderstood birds.
So, let’s take a closer look at the only hummingbird that nests in the Eastern US, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).
First, although you might see hummingbirds that look different from each other from mid-March through October, it’s a safe bet that at least 99.99% of all the ones that occur throughout the Ark-La-Tex during that time are Ruby-throats. Adult males arrive first after flying here from Mexico and Central America to set up territories, and they’re easily separated from adult females because their colored throat patches, called a “gorget,” are bright red in direct sunlight. Out of direct sunlight, the same gorgets are so dark they look black. But it’s still the same bird. The females all have white throats, and when the birds arrive in spring, there are no immatures to confuse with adults.
Most Ruby-throats in our area raise two broods during the summer, and when the immatures leave their nests, they look exactly like adult females and are the same size as adults. Immature males will slowly grow a few red gorget feathers before they depart in fall, like the hummingbird version of the five o’clock shadow. But this way, you may have three or four different-looking types of hummers in your yard that are all the same species. Other species in summer in Louisiana are scarce. If you think you have one, get photo or video documentation and contact me immediately.
As anyone who has ever put up a hummingbird feeder knows, hummingbirds drink nectar. What’s nectar? It’s sugar water. You can also grow a hummingbird flower garden with the right flowers; that way, you don’t have to keep making nectar every few days. A few of the best flowers that do well in our area are Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus drummondii), Cuphea’ David Verity’ (Cuphea var.), and several Salvia species, like Red Texas Sage (Salvia coccinea), Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii), or any variety of Salvia guaranitica like Black and Blue Salvia, Black and Bloom, or Purple and Bloom. If you are interested in others, you may contact me for a free, comprehensive list.
One dietary fact about hummingbirds you might not know is that they eat insects. It makes sense when you consider there’s no protein in nectar. So, yep, that tiny, needle-like bill actually opens. They use their ridiculously long tongue to lap up nectar, kind of like a dog’s tongue laps up water, except that hummingbirds’ tongues are not only so long, they literally wrap around the bird’s skull when drawn in (eww, by the way), but they also split in half like a snake’s tongue at the tip when inserted into flowers or feeders but with little, grabby, finger-like protrusions on each fork (mega-ewww; just nasty).
One of the coolest things about Ruby-throats in particular is their migration pattern. In spring, most will fly 500 miles or more across the Gulf of Mexico, starting from the tip of the Yucatan. But what’s more astonishing is that they do not fly across the Gulf of Mexico in fall migration. During fall migration, they fly around the Gulf by way of Texas. It’s called circum-Gulf migration. But why is that cool, and why do this in the fall and not in the spring? One word: hurricanes. Yep, somehow, through zillions of years of being around, it’s become embedded in Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that they can’t fly across the Gulf of Mexico in fall migration. Even the 3-4-month-old immature ones know to do this, and they do so without the aid of their parents, who actually leave first. Think about that the next time you cut the crust off your kid’s PB&J. I bet your kids can’t even remember where they left their shoes without your help. Am I right?
Now all that’s cool, but what’s cooler? Tacos. But cooler than tacos, is that, of the more than 35 million of these guys in North America, the vast majority of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have to pass directly through…..the Ark-La-Tex. This is because they all breed in the eastern half of North America and follow a circum-Gulf migratory path in the fall. Your backyard is the narrowest part of the migratory funnel. What does that mean? No, not tacos. Stay with me. It means lots and lots and lots of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Sometimes in my yard, I get over 100 per hour.
August and September are the peak fall migratory times for Ruby-throats, with the second week of September being the peak of the peak. How do you take advantage? If you’ll start soon and follow these steps, you’ll have dozens of them swarming in your yard before long. Set up at least four feeders within about three feet of each other. If you have a porch or overhang, hang the feeders in a row along the outer edge of it for what is usually the most productive configuration. If not, you can use shepherd staff either in a row or arranged in a close group.
For the nectar, make a sugar water mixture of one part sugar to three or four parts water. That’s 25% to 20% sugar, respectively. Do NOT add red dye, as it has been linked to creating tumors in hummingbirds. You don’t even need red feeders. You can boil the water but certainly don’t have to; it must be hot enough to dissolve the sugar completely. It keeps in the fridge for about 8-10 days, and when it’s above 90 degrees, you must change the nectar and clean the feeders after two days. If you see black mold on the feeders, soak them in a light bleach solution and rinse them thoroughly; black mold kills hummingbirds. If this is too much for you, then please don’t do it. Being lazy with making fresh nectar and keeping clean feeders leads to dead hummingbirds. Instead, plant a bunch of those flowers I mentioned, but you’ll have to wait until next May to do it. In the meantime, there are always tacos.
John Dillon is an expert on bird identification. He teaches at Minden High School, has served on the Louisiana Bird Records Committee since 2011, is Past-President of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, and is a regional reviewer for Cornell University’s www.ebird.org, the largest online database of avian records. For content-related questions, you can email him at email@example.com.