Ruby-throated hummingbirds are eastern North America’s only breeding hummingbird, and they occupy the largest breeding range of any North American hummingbird. Ruby-throats are the only hummingbird species that visit Georgia.
These hummingbirds spend the winter in Central America or southern Mexico and begin migrating north in the spring. Hummingbirds can be seen in breeding grounds in the eastern United States as early as February, and some continue on to Canada. By late summer and early fall, breeding is complete, and the males start the migration south to Mexico and Central America. It’s hard to imagine, but many cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight.
There doesn’t appear to be a definitive answer as to what triggers their migration. However, there are several likely factors: instinct, changes in daylight duration, cooling temperatures and the declining availability of flowers, nectar and insects.
To draw hummingbirds to your backyard, hang feeders and include plants that attract them. Favorites include trumpet honeysuckle, scarlet beebalm, lemon beebalm, bergamot, cardinal flower and trumpet creeper. Their spring migration coincides with flowering red buckeye, columbine and salvia. In addition to nectar, hummingbirds also eat spiders and tiny insects, such as flies, gnats and aphids, as a source of fat and protein.
When placing your feeders, be mindful not to make the hummingbirds easy targets for cats. Also, male hummingbirds aggressively defend their food source with wild acrobatic chases and fights, so avoid placing the feeders near windows that they could collide with.
When choosing a feeder, the two most important features are: how easy they are to clean and how big they are. The best feeder size is a small one that is emptied every day or two by the feeding birds. Since they are very territorial, four individual feeders with one feeding port each will attract and sustain more hummingbirds than one large feeder with multiple ports.
Hummingbird food is easy to make with just sugar and water, but make sure to use ordinary table sugar. Do not use honey to make hummingbird food, since adding water to honey causes bacteria and fungus to grow. If you mix fresh batches every day or two, the normal mixture is 1⁄4 cup of sugar to 1 cup of water. However, mixing larger batches, and refrigerating for future use, requires boiling the water before adding the sugar. There’s no need to add colored commercial mixes or red food coloring to sugar water. Flower nectar is clear, and red food coloring could be harmful to hummingbirds.
Help prevent your sugar solution from spoiling by placing your hummingbird feeders in semi-shaded areas. Change the solution before it becomes cloudy or discolored. Remember that hot weather will cause sugar water to rapidly ferment and produce toxic alcohol.
During the fall migration, it is recommended to keep at least one feeder up for about two weeks after sighting your last bird. You don’t want to miss any late-migrating hummers so hang up some feeders, and enjoy the show!
If you’re interested in what colors hummingbirds can actually see and identify, a Princeton research team investigated how birds respond to flower colors that advertise a nectar reward. Their experiments revealed that, unlike humans, hummingbirds have a fourth color cone that allows them to see colors in combination with ultraviolet light. Visit www.environment.princeton.edu for more information.
The Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County (MGVOCC) supports the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and strives to improve the quality of life in our community by delivering research-based horticultural information, educational programs and projects.
– Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County is a part of the University of Georgia Extension in Marietta.