Posted September 10, 2009 11:27 pm

The Hum of Hummingbirds

     I have been sitting here for the last few minutes watching and listening to several hummingbirds swoop, dive, and chase each other around the feeders I have hanging outside our windows. In just a few short weeks here in Arkansas, our hummingbirds will leave us for the winter, migrating south to Mexico or Central America to spend the winter in a warmer clime. I am, therefore, enjoying this little display while I can.

     We have been feeding hummingbirds at our house for a number of years now, and the very small amount of money we have spent over that time has yielded huge rewards of pleasure and wonder. Just three inches long, these aerial acrobats are amazingly talented, intelligent, and surprisingly, loud. Sit on a deck or patio with feeders hung on the fringes or sit in a room where a feeder hangs outside an open window, and you will hear the hummingbird before you see it. There is the steady, strong hum as one hovers above the feeder, drinking long and steadily. There is the varooming hum they make as they swoop and dive chasing each other. Finally, there is the squeaking call, not a hum at all, they make frequently to one another and to you. That's right, once hummingbirds are established in your landscape and have seen you rather often, they will start attempting to communicate to you. Stand in front of a screen door or screened window, and one is likely to come and hover right in front of you, staring straight at you. Once they are comfortable with your presence, you will sometimes, if outside near the feeders, find one hovering no more than six inches in front of your face. I find this happens most often to me when the feeders are near empty. It is as if the hummer knows that I am the one who fills them, and it is telling me in no uncertain terms, "Make more food!" We were lucky enough one year to have a female build her nest and raise her babies in a crook of one of our smaller trees, only about 7 feet off the ground. We discovered the nest soon after she laid the eggs and were able to watch it until the babies matured and the nest was abandoned. Hummingbirds also have excellent memories. I know when in the spring it is time to put out filled feeders because one of the little jewels from the year before will come and hover outside the window where the feeder had hung the summer before. 

    The ruby-throated hummingbird is the species most often seen in Arkansas and the only one known to nest and reproduce here. The ruby-throated hummingbird gets its name from the dark red color of the throat of the male. In less than perfect light, this red may appear black, but let the sun hit it just right, and it glows a beautiful deep red. The female of the species has a white belly and throat. Immature males may have a white throat although as they begin to develop their ruby red coloring, it can appear they have a black throat collar. Hummingbirds are extremely territorial and one bird will frequently stake out a perch on a branch near a feeder and dive at any other hummer who approaches the feeder. That is why it is important to have more than one feeder.

     The main diet of a hummingbird is flower nectar and small insects. The liquid in feeders supplements their diets and gives them extra energy as they forage for natural foods. Besides hanging feeders outside your windows and on your decks and patios, you can also help attract hummers by planting tubular-flowering plants, especially in shades of red and pink, that will attract the little creatures. It is not necessary to buy expensive red hummingbird nectar at the store, and in fact there is considerable opinion, although not yet backed up by significant scientific research, that the red dye and other additives in commercial hummingbird food may actually be harmful to the tiny birds. The easiest and cheapest way to fill your feeders is to make a mixture of 1 part sugar and 4 parts water. Heat the mixture until the sugar dissolves and until it gets to just this side of a boil. (That means until the mixture begins to send up small bubbles around the edge of the pan but has not yet come to a full rolling boil.) Remove from heat, cool the mixture, and then fill your feeders. I have six feeders at our house, and I make up 2 cups sugar and 8 cups water for each batch. Unless there has been a big problem with mold between fillings, simply rinsing the feeders with straight hot water (140┬░ F.) is sufficient. If there has been mold formation or if you are putting the feeders away for the winter, then taking them completely apart and soaking all pieces in a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach and 10 parts water will clean them. If the mold sticks to a particular area, use an old toothbrush to scrub it free. Rinse the pieces well and let air dry.

    People often ask, when do I need to bring in my feeders? I have heard it speculated that leaving them out past the first of October will cause the hummingbirds to hang around too long and die when cold weather suddenly arrives. That is not true. Hummingbirds are well aware of when it is time to start their journey south, and they will leave whether you have food out or not. In fact, it is better to leave the feeders out until true cold weather arrives so that the extra energy boost is available to birds passing through on their journeys from more northern areas south. If you would like to learn more about hummingbirds and see some good photographs, try

     Until next time, happy rummaging.