Humming a love song..

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Are they here yet? Are they here yet?
Reblooming ‘Major Wheeler’ coral honeysuckle provides hummingbird attracting flowers from very early spring to very late in fall.

As I write this at the end of March, millions of faces are peering out their windows at freshly filled hummingbird feeders. Friends south of them have reported their first sightings of the season, and goodness, what kind of human being would want to disappoint an early hummingbird?

I remember an April morning several years ago when a freak late season snowstorm was still spitting flurries when I stepped out to the porch. I was horrified to see a hummingbird hovering expectantly in the exact location of last summer’s feeders. If there is Guinness World Record for the speed of dissolving sugar in water, I broke it that day. My face was pressed to the glass until I saw him drink.

Salvia greggii ‘Glitter’ made a 3′ cushion of flowers in one growing season.

That experience convinced me that hummingbirds come back to the same feeders each year, and bless those people who band the feisty little birds and satisfy our curiosity, because it is confirmed that sometimes they do. I don’t know if hummingbirds dream, but if so, is it ever of my deck on Whippoorwill Hill? I choose to believe so.

There is no dispute over love for hummingbirds, but there is debate about sugar concentrations. Most hummingbird enthusiasts rely on the standard 1 part sugar to 4 parts water as the “best” recipe. However, when I learned that our native jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) has nectar measured at an astounding 43% sugar solution, I set out to research some of their other favorite flowers, and found that many of the salvias they frequent have concentrations in the 30% and higher range.

I knew that hummingbirds were primarily insectivores. As my birding friend put it, they are insect eating birds fueled by sugars. Sugar supplies the necessary calories to maintain their extremely high metabolic rates as they seek the insects they need.

I also found studies that compared feeding frequencies on a variety of solution concentrations. They revealed that hummingbirds fed less frequently on stronger solutions because they only require a certain number of calories per hour. After I read that, I was comfortable in making my solutions one part sugar to two parts water.
Why would I want my hummingbirds to come less frequently? I am helping out little mama.

The female has a longer, leaner body, probably because she does all the work. The adult male’s red gorget does not always show if the light isn’t right.

She can grab a quick metabolic fix and tend to her many chores. Many people don’t know that male hummingbirds are deadbeat dads. All they do is supply the semen. They do not help build nests. They do not help incubate eggs or feed the female while she incubates, nor do they help feed the young. They just zoom around being bossy bad-asses at the feeders and looking sparkly, while she is scrapping to feed the young’uns. She must harvest thousands of tiny insects and regurgitate them mixed with nectar into the mouths of the babes, all the while fighting off starvation for herself. Damn right I’m giving her some of the good stuff.

Besides, there is no lessening of activity at my feeders, as far as I can tell. Word must be out that the feeders at Whippoorwill Hill are supplying virtual hummingbird crack. At peak late summer/early fall migration, as the birds are moving back down the continent, I’ll be running eight 48 oz feeders that will require a refill every other day. I buy so much sugar at the grocery store they probably think I’m making moonshine.

I “captured” some of the explosive jewelweed seeds and managed to establish some of this reseeding annual in my shady areas near the house. Angus doesn’t care.

Not coincidentally, this coincides with the bloom time of jewelweed, a common wildflower in our bottomlands. These blooms are especially adapted for hummingbird pollination, and the hummingbirds benefit from the rich sugar content by building up a little reserve for the big southern push ahead.

Of course, I also plant lots of the hummingbirds’ favorite flowers, especially salvias, both annual and perennial forms. Luckily there are many that reliably return for me here in west Tennessee, a Zone 7, among them selections of Salvia greggii, microphylla and guaranitica. I’ve already purchased five more this spring to add to the growing collection. The blooming plants are not only nectar sources but attract those all-important insects. Oh, and I like looking at pretty flowers too, so there is that.

Remember attracting insects is a goal, so not all plants have to be nectar providing “hummingbird plants”.

But back to the less selfish, I am more than a little touched by how many human beings provide for these little birds. Here is the annual spring scenario viewed from outer space. If we had supercalifragilisticexpialidocious eyesight, we would see millions of tiny hummingbirds dispersing up the North American continent, completely unaware of how many million humans are expectantly preparing for them. These hummingbirds have absolutely no idea countless people are writing and underlining SUGAR! on the grocery list, or scrubbing their feeders, or paying for hummingbird plants at garden centers. They don’t know we love them. They don’t care. They don’t thank us.

In a time when it seems especially easy to be angry with fellow humans, does that not make you smile? Keep peering, lovers and friends, they are on the way.

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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”

 

6 COMMENTS

  1. Lovely piece! I’m inspired to provide some hummingbird “crack” this season. I try to plant hummingbird preferred annuals and keep my husband from pulling up the jewelweed. What worries me is possibly forgetting to clean the birdfeeder and poisoning the birds if the sugar solution gets too old. Is this a concern?

  2. I clean mine when it gets cloudy, and don’t forget because I hang them just outside the windows around the house, to best enjoy the little buggers up close and personal. I hear a good bit of concern over the solutions “going bad” but whether this is truly an issue, I can find no real documentation of detrimental effects. I might be overly optimistic that the hummingbirds would find it distasteful if it were to go rank. After all, we aren’t trapping a hummingbird into a room and that is its only source for sustenance. They have plenty of other options to find fresh food at our flowers or at other hummingbird lover’s feeders. I also suspect that sweeter solutions might remain in good shape longer, since sugar in large amounts can be used as a preservative.

    • 1. If your solution gets cloudy, mold and bacteria are forming, so cleaning should be done before it clouds. The mold can infect the hummingbird’s tongue and trachea making them swell causing Hummers Candidiasis, a deadly disease resulting in starvation. I have seen a hummingbird struggle for many minutes to drink, most likely due to this. It will eventually die and can also infect its nestlings.

      2. “Sweeter solutions might remain in good shape longer.” There are some osmotolerant yeasts and bacteria that can grow in sugar concentrations up to 50%.

      3. Ants can carry pathogens, from bacteria to fungal. I use a feeder from Walmart that with slits instead of holes with an onboard ant moat for about $6. Very few bees to sting hummingbirds, no ants.

      4. It has been discovered that hummingbirds actually taste sugar unlike non-nectar consuming birds. Whether they can taste mold as it is forming is probably not known.

      5. If it’s over 70 degrees outside, you will get mold growth and it can begin in 24 hours. On ideal temperature days for growth, I’ll rinse the feeder and change the solution daily. The feeder should be cleaned with a bleach solution weekly. This takes little time.

      6. I stick with the recommended 4:1 solution all summer, and go 3:1 in the spring when temperatures are at 70 degrees or below upon arrival.

      7. I add a fruit table with very ripe fruit attracting loads of fruit flies and watch the hummingbirds sit above the table, picking them off as they fly around.

      The hummingbird tongue is fascinating. We should first do it no harm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMw3RO7p9yg

  3. Hummingbird feeders are my favorite housewarming gift to give! Here in our 4-season area (snow in winter), we have kept our feeder going year-round, bringing it in when it freezes. I did some research, and it’s not uncommon for hummers to stay and overwinter, nor do they stick around just because you leave the feeders out. Their downy feathers puff up, and they’re quite active.

  4. I recently found a protein feeder while searching online for more hummingbird feeder options (as if already having 4 feeders isn’t evidence of a fixation). It’s a red container with small openings and perches. You place bananas inside and in a few days fruit flies begin streaming out of the holes. It’s not an option during winter months, sadly. I’m going to try a DIY version using red plastic beer cups when it warms up this spring.

  5. Wow, that’s really helpful! I had always been afraid I might accidentally put too much sugar in my “one part sugar per four parts water” mix. Now I can relax!

    Oh, and definitely, the hummingbirds do come back to our front porch on a regular basis. Last year we found a tiny little nest in the shrubbery just below our feeder, with a tiny broken eggshell inside.

    We left it alone, and this morning I looked at it: the eggshell fragments are gone and the nest seems to have been relined with some soft, fluffy material – ready for a new occupant?

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