Posted July 16, 2020
Written by Amy Pettigrew
Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are not just Massachusetts’ only commonly seen hummingbird, but they are also our smallest breeding bird. They are migratory, coming to our area typically in late spring, breeding (up to 2 broods per season with 1-3 eggs each time) and leaving again come fall to overwinter in Central America. Adult males of the species have a ruby patch on their throat, which is where they get their name. Females and juvenile males lack this coloration, but all members of this species have vibrant, glistening, green backs which make them all a beautiful sight to see. Personally, I tend to hear the telltale hum of a hummingbirds wings before I see them, and listening for this humming is a great way to hone in on where they are flying since they are so fast!
Did you know that scientists estimate hummingbirds beat their wings approximately 53 times per second? They are so agile and quick when flying they can stop in an instant and are able to maneuver up, down, side-to-side, and backwards with extreme precision. Even male courtship displays rely on speedy and accurate flying. Males will make a U-shaped dive at females that enter their territory, starting from as high as 50 ft. above the female. Males are territorial and will defend flowers and feeders alike, so be on the lookout for spectacular chases between males.
Since they are so magnificent to watch, many people, including my family, put up hummingbird feeders to attract these iconic birds. There is quite a variety of different styles of hummingbird feeders, but this year we chose to put up one that has an ant moat at the top and nectar guards over the nectar holes. We made this decision after having dozens of ants not only crawl over our last feeder, but also make their way inside.
Some resources say that ants are dangerous to hummingbirds while others point out that some adult hummingbirds will eat the ants while feeding on nectar, but we decided to err on the side of caution. The moat deters many of the ants, but a few still make their way onto the feeder. This is where the nectar guards come into play. These cage-like domes put enough distance between the nectar holes and the cage to limit insect access, while hummingbird bills easily slip through into drinking position (see photo on left).
To make your own nectar all you need is regular table sugar and water! You want your ratio to be 4 parts water for every 1 part sugar. That means you could combine 1 cup of water with 1/4 cup sugar for a small batch, or 4 cups of water with a cup of sugar if you have multiple feeders to fill and need a larger batch. You can dissolve the sugar into the water by mixing thoroughly, or by boiling the water and sugar mixture until the sugar granules have disappeared. If you choose to boil the water, you must ensure the sugar water has completely cooled before using it in a feeder. I have found that making smaller batches is better, especially since you should plan to change your nectar out 2-3 times a week, and more often during summertime and/or if your feeder gets a lot of direct sunlight. Preferably you should place your feeder in a fairly shady spot though to help alleviate potential hazards.
Changing your nectar regularly will prevent mold in your feeder. It also doesn’t take long in the direct sun for your nectar to ferment into toxic alcohol, so plan to monitor your feeder and refresh the nectar supply on a regular basis. When changing your nectar, be sure to empty out the old sugar water and clean the feeder before refilling!
This year my family has observed at least 4 different individual hummingbirds at our feeder! We believe we have at least 2 females and are certain we have at least 2 males. The males have been easier to keep track of and identify since they have different shades of red/pink on their throats. One male has a much more vibrant patch, while the other’s is much darker (compare the two photos on the right). We also have noticed different personalities between the individuals, especially the females. One female, who appears to be slightly larger than the other, will never perch while drinking, while the smaller one will perch but only for small periods of time. The male with the brighter patch of feathers also is more vocal than the one with the darker patch, letting out a loud (for a hummingbird) “Tziek!” between sips of nectar.
Watching our hummingbirds has become a family bonding experience and gives us something to look forward to each day. I have even had the pleasure of photographing one of our females land and preen her feathers on top of our vegetable supports in June and this week snapped a photo of a hummingbird in a tree as it waited for me to move further away from the feeder (both images featured below).
And if you enjoy gardening, there are also flowering plants you can add to your garden to attract hummingbirds. Perennials like bee balm, native honeysuckle, and pink turtlehead are great additions to any yard, as well as annuals like phlox, snapdragons, and fuchsias.