Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Your hummingbird questions answered ...

It's the season for hummingbird questions! Here are just a few that I have answered in the past:

Q What kinds of hummingbird nest in New England? We often see one with a red throat and another with a greenish throat.

A While several species are now being seen in the Northeast, mostly in the autumn, it is the ruby-throated hummingbird that regularly nests here in Massachusetts and Vermont, and as far as I know, the eastern United States. Throat variation denotes sex.

Q How do I make hummingbird food?

A It is very simple, add four cups of water with one cup of white granulated sugar and heat thoroughly to dissolve. Turn heat off, mix well and cool.

Q I see deep red hummingbird nectar offered in stores. How do I make it?

A You don't need to provide red nectar or simply red sugar water. Hummingbirds do not look for red colored nectar, but red colored flowers. And while there has long been a discussion about the safety of adding food coloring to sugar water, it has never been proven harmful, or beneficial.

Q How often should hummingbird feeders be cleaned?

A Feeders need to be cleaned at least once a week. When in open sun, clean more often to keep the mold at a minimum. It is better for the birds and easier to keep feeder clean.

Q Can I add vitamins or use honey or other natural sweeteners, or fruit juices?

A No, no, no.

Q Is there a flower that best attracts these little gems?

A There are many. My favorites are bee balm and fuchsia, in addition to yellow or orange touch-me-not, also called" jewelweed." This wildflower should be encouraged as it is a late-season food source.

Q Will hummingbirds migrate if we continue feeding?

A Hummingbirds will migrate when it is time to migrate, and leaving feeders up come fall may benefit late individuals. Timing of migration is more likely triggered by the length of the day, not the availability of feeders.

Q How long do these little birds live?

A The oldest known banded ruby-throated hummingbird was 9 years and 1 month of age. The good news for our lady readers is that female hummingbirds, like their human counterparts, on average, live longer than males. Males rarely survive past their 5th birthday, while females live seven years or more.

Q Why do I almost never see more than one hummingbird at a time at the feeder?

A While they are tiny birds, ruby-throats are extremely territorial and one of the most aggressive birds, chasing other individuals away. There are exceptions, especially when a number of feeders are available at a site. These jewels are not afraid to attack crows and hawks!

Q How many hummingbirds are there, and why is it that only one nests in the east?

A I cannot say why only one species regularly nests east of the Mississippi. In the United States, only eight species regularly nest, while worldwide there are some 325 species, mostly in the tropics.

Finally, one question none have asked me relates to use of insecticides on flowers, gardens and lawns, especially if you are feeding the birds, especially hummingbirds and other pollinators like moths, butterflies, bees and flies. New research from Canada indicates that neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been implicated as a key factor in global bee decline, are contributing to hummingbird decline. "Neonicotinoids (neonics) are widely used in both agriculture and in backyard gardens and landscapes. They are persistent, lasting in water and soil for months to years," according to Jason Davidson, food and technology campaign associate/Friends of The Earth.          

A primer on hummingbirds:


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