“Hummin’ South”

Temperatures are cooling along the coast and that corresponds with the end of blooming season for food plants, so some of the tiniest among us have made a very big decision about whether to stay and tough out our modestly, mild winter or pack it in and head south. My hummingbird feeder has hung without visits since mid-September in Jacksonville. North Carolina’s Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds usually begin migrating south in late summer. Guess it’s time to take the feeder down, clean it up and put it away until next Spring now that all the northern hummers have passed through on their way to winter in Central America or on a Caribbean island. However, the feeder at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, North Carolina still has to be replenished often because it remains visited and will be throughout the winter. Even though ruby-throats, the only hummingbirds that breed in the eastern United States during the summer, aren’t well adapted to cold temperatures especially below the mid-20’sF, some choose to stay. It’s amazing that a distance of only thirty-five miles from my house can make such a difference, but they, usually males, have been toughing it out at our shelter for years now. Why? They’re not talking, so we can only guess they don’t want to give up their territory. These little birds are definitely not wimps! Unlike mammals, that “fur up” for winter, these tiny, tropical birds do not grow extra feathering for warmth. However, hummingbirds are capable of entering a hibernation-like state known as torpor during cold spells to conserve energy.
Our shelter sees very few of these wee birds, but when they make it in for treatment, it’s usually something quite serious such as a broken wing or a displaced baby, orphaned by high winds or predator disruption of the nest in which the female is the only guardian because hummingbirds do not mate for life. Every once in a blue moon, we’ll receive a minor injury, such as a sprained wing or a “stunning” which occurs when a hummer has accidently smacked into a window or patio door. The latter injuries are what we hope for at OWLS when a hummingbird is admitted. Then, much needed quiet, recovery time and a healthy diet sprinkled with a wildlife rehabilitator’s TLC is all that’s required before they will soon be zooming their favorite backyard again.

Ruby-throats are quite inquisitive and easily attracted to feeders. Males, who sport the bright red ornamented throat, in particular are typically, territorially aggressive toward rival hummers who want to chow down at “their” feeder, as well as, other birds like the Common House Finch, and even insects such as bees, butterflies and moths. They often spend much of the day perched nearby, guarding their food source against perceived intruders and dutifully running off any encroachers. Hummers quickly become accustomed to people and will feed at flowers while you are gardening or swoop down to investigate red articles of clothing, possibly as potential food sources. Feeders hung at windows attract as many visitors as ones farther from structures. Hummingbird watchers, including those of us at the shelter, find “Hummer Wars” very entertaining, although the chases are obviously serious business to the hungry birds. For a short period immediately after fledging, a female hummingbird encourages and tolerates the presence of her own young at the feeder, but they are soon treated the same as any other adult bird; a rival in pursuit of food necessary to prepare for fall migration.
Everything about a hummingbird is fast. Wing beats are anywhere from forty to eighty beats per second depending upon what they are doing. Flight speed is normally thirty mph, but they shift to fifty mph to escape and have been clocked at 63 mph in a dive. Respiration is 250 breaths per minute. Their resting heart rate measures 250 also and accelerates to 1200 beats per minute while feeding. They are the race horses of birds, but extremely more agile. They fly forward, backward, downward, upward and even upside-down!
They will return to our area March through May, so keep an eye out and get those feeders ready. Their life span, if they make it past the first uncertain year, is five to ten years, so your returnees may have been part of your wildlife family for years! White granulated sugar is the best sweetener to use in hummingbird feeders with a ratio of one part sugar to four parts water. Hummingbirds like very sweet nectar, so anything less than twenty percent will probably be snubbed, and they will move in with your sweeter neighbor. Most feeders have some red decorative element on them somewhere, so there is no need to add red food coloring to the nectar you have prepared. Insects are also a big part of their diet. The presence of hummingbirds is a win-win situation. For just a little payment of sugar water, they will wreck havoc on your pesky, flying bug population, and that’s what the buzz is all about! Until next Spring, I Hope they’re having fun in the tropics.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Wildlife Rehabilitator
Author of “Save Them All”