Posted: February 4, 2013, 3:30 p.m. PST
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are named for the male's dazzling red throat.
Excerpted from “Ambrosia for the Hummingbird Gods” in “Popular Birding Series: Hummingbirds,” published by BirdChannel.com publisher I-5 Publishing.
When is the best time to put up your hummingbird feeders, and when should you take them down? It depends upon where you live. There are exceptions – Anna’s Hummingbirds, Allen’s Hummingbirds and Costa’s Hummingbirds can be year-round residents in some of their ranges – but most hummingbird species spend their nonbreeding time south of the United States.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only hummingbird species known to breed east of the Mississippi River, so if you live in the eastern United States or Canada, this is the hummingbird species you’ll see at your feeders. Birders in western regions might attract Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Calliope or Rufous Hummingbirds.
Find out when hummingbird species that visit your area are likely to arrive, and put out your bird feeders a couple weeks prior to their expected arrival. You can ask experts at a local wild bird store or birding group, or try the Internet. Lanny Chambers in St. Louis maintains an excellent website that monitors arrival dates of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Click here for another website that monitors hummingbird species by state.
Experts agree that hummingbirds respond to the color red. Many birding enthusiasts deck out their yards with boughs of red surveyors flagging, artificial flowers, red clothing or blankets on clotheslines, and everything imaginable to catch the hummingbirds’ attention during spring migration. Tie the red stuff to bushes and deck rails near your feeders.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in southern Illinois usually arrive around April 15, and I buy large flats of red nectar plants (already in bloom) that I plant en masse. This is a good time to put out those red umbrellas, helmets and various feeder toppers, too – the redder, the better.
Typically, bird activity at hummingbird feeders tapers down in summer when the female birds tend to nesting duties, and the male birds feed from wildflowers and insects rather than feeders. As summer progresses, the adult hummingbirds and their offspring return to feeders.
Fall migration can be the most exciting time at hummingbird feeders in the East, as thousands of hummingbirds wing their way south to their winter feeding sites. As with spring migration, fall dates vary by location and hummingbird species, but leave your clean bird feeders up until a couple weeks after you see the last bird using them.
A common question is whether leaving a bird feeder up too long will prevent birds from migrating. In her book “Hummingbird Gardens” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), co-author Nancy Newfield, a hummingbird expert from Louisiana, writes, “In those hummingbird species that migrate (and not all do), the bird’s departure time is based on the length of the day, not the abundance of food. Indeed, when the time to migrate comes, the urge to leave is so powerful that no amount of food could persuade them to stay.”
For those of us who can’t imagine a life without hummingbirds, fall can be a melancholy time when each day finds us with fewer – and eventually no – birds. The windows seem empty and our meals on the back porch lonely of the buzzes and squeaks of our birds chasing each other.
Finally, around Thanksgiving, I give up on the hummingbirds and bring in the last feeder to clean and store for the winter. I feel a little sad, but before long, I’m buying another dozen bird feeders and stocking up at sugar sales so the table will be set when the birds return in spring. Maybe the hummingbirds don’t need me, but I’d sure miss them if they didn’t stop by for a visit each season.
Learn where to place a bird feeder here.
Learn how to clean wild birds here.