Hummingbirds arriving soon
Our native ruby-throated hummingbirds are on the move now, flying north from their southern wintering grounds. They may migrate from as far south as Panama, and fly for more than 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico, before making landfall in southern Texas or Florida, then continuing on as far north as Canada to summer nesting sites.
How do these tiny birds do it? Hummers are only three to four inches in length, weighing in at less than six grams on average (females are slightly heavier) but their chest muscles are the strongest pound for pound (or gram for gram) of any bird. These powerful chest muscles enable hummers to fly up, down, sideways, backwards and hover.
Relative to their body size, hummingbirds have the largest heart of all warm-blooded mammals with the fastest heartbeat of 1,260 beats per minute (in comparison, the maximum heart rates of Olympic rowers are reported to be between 160 to 220 beats per minute).
Hummingbirds have the largest brains of all birds their size and are beautiful, too, with metallic green to purple feathers above, grey feathers below. Their name comes from the male bird with its brilliant iridescent, metallic red throat. With their high metabolism and need to feed continually from dawn to dusk, hummers are excellent pollinators.
The hummingbird’s arrival seems to coincide with the flowering of certain nectar plants such as wild red columbine and red quince. Fringed bleeding heart, solomon’s seal, coral bells and penstemon are also spring blooming favorites of these birds and people, too. You can offer tired and hungry migrating hummers the nectar they need and valuable habitat by growing more native plants in your yard. They may be able to find a nesting site in your garden if you offer the native plants and habitat they need.
In addition to drinking the nectar of native flowering plants, ruby-throated hummingbirds feed on tree sap provided by the drilling of the yellow bellied sap-sucker, a native woodpecker. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and hummers drink sap oozing from many kinds of trees including maple, birch, fir, hickory, beech, ash, cedar, tulip tree, magnolia and oak. Just as you may enjoy maple syrup or sweet birch beer, so do the hummers. The damage done to trees by this sap sucking is generally minor.
If you have the right native trees or add them, do you need a hummingbird feeder? If you do have a hummingbird feeder, the Audubon Society recommends cleaning it every two days to keep it safe for the birds.
Like all birds, hummingbirds eat a lot of insects in the summer, including flies, ants, bees and beetles. Insects are a bird’s major source of protein and fat. As they are reared in the summer, young birds eat a diet that is almost exclusively insects. Baby birds must have the protein and fat these insects provide to grow into adult birds.
Hummingbirds are attracted to many annual plants to eat the insects attracted to their blooms, such as zinnias and lantana. Do not use pesticides or herbicides in your garden. Designed to poison insects and plants, they will poison tiny hummingbirds and other birds, too. Be mindful that many double blooming flowers such as double blooming quince are designed to appeal to humans and they have beautiful blooms, but all of the plant’s energy is directed to blooming so they have no nectar or pollen to offer pollinators.
Hummingbirds especially like red tubular flowers: trumpet vine, native honeysuckle, rhododendrons, azaleas, bee balm, hollyhock, catmint, salvia, penstemon, rose of sharon and fuchsia. Late-season blooming natives to add that make life easier for migrating hummingbirds and butterflies include goldenrods, asters, sunflowers and blazing stars. Cinnamon ferns are used as a favorite nesting material.
Hummingbird nests are hard to find, they usually nest in the fork of a small tree. Nests may be camouflaged with lichens, which hummingbirds attach to their nests with spider silk. As mentioned before, hummingbirds are excellent pollinators. Honey bees, originally from warmer Mediterranean climates, are inactive in cool, wet weather and visit flowers only during the warmer part of the day. Hummingbirds and our native bees are more stocky and robust, tolerant of lower temperatures and start work early, pollinating flowers from early morning to evening. If you plant it they will come.
The Wilton Garden Club’s plant sale this weekend will offer many hummingbird favorites and a huge selection of native plants. Join us on the Wilton Pollinator Pathway.