May 1, 2015
By Jody Walthall
Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by Elizabeth Schmidt
Every spring I look forward to the return of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird from its usual winter range in Central America and Mexico. Many congregate on the Yucatan Peninsula, using it as the jumping off point for a 500 mile, eighteen hour, non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Hoping to ride a tailwind, some instead meet adverse winds and use up their small energy supply of stored fat before they reach our coast and fall into the Gulf. For those that make it, it is an amazing feat of endurance and navigation. The first arrivals in our area show up around March 15th.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds breed in the eastern United States from the Gulf coast of Texas, almost due north through Minnesota, into southern Canada and eastward from Lake Okeechobee to Nova Scotia. Many of the hummingbirds you see in your yard are passing through on their way to their breeding grounds farther north. Some will stop in north Florida to find mates and raise young. After mating, the female goes to her preferred nesting habitat, often near a woodland stream, river or swamp. She builds the nest and raises the two babies with no help from the male.
After hatching, the young stay in the nest about three weeks. Mom feeds them by ramming a regurgitated mixture of insects down their throats. For this reason, native trees and shrubs are very important to the survival of hummers. These plants are preferred by native insects that hummers consume by the thousands. Insects provide all the protein, vitamins, minerals and fats hummers need for a balanced diet and are critical for feeding the baby hummingbirds. These insects are found almost exclusively on American native plants. Ornamental plants from other parts of the world, such as loropetalum, ligustrum, crape myrtle or Chinese elm are mostly useless for providing hummingbirds with insects.
The best way to attract hummingbirds is to plant a wide variety of nectar producing plants. Try to use natives like red buckeye, wild azaleas, coral honeysuckle, firebush, columbine, red swamp mallow and silverbell. Non-natives like pentas, perennial salvias, shrimp plant and cardinal guard are good choices also.
Feeders are another way to attract hummingbirds. Use only white sugar. Mix with water at a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, or one cup of water to ¼ cup sugar. Commercial nectar mixtures containing added vitamin, protein or flavors are not recommended. Red food coloring is not necessary and may be harmful. Never use honey since it carries a fungus that is fatal to hummers.
By mid-July, northern hummers are already migrating south, mostly males at first. From April through September, the bird visiting your feeder, the bird you call ‘your hummer’, is probably a different bird every day. Fred Dietrich, a certified hummingbird bander, caught seventy-two birds in his yard during this period. Only three of them were recaptures. The latest you’ll see a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in your yard is around mid-October. They have probably doubled their weight for fuel to make the dangerous Gulf crossing.
We never fail to be amazed by these feisty little animals. Imagine the spunk, courage and drive it would take for us to leave dry land and fly five hundred miles non-stop over water without a GPS, a phone to call for help or any food and water. Amazing!
Jody Walthall is co-owner and landscape designer at Native Nurseries and a volunteer writer for Leon County UF/IFAS Extension. For gardening questions, email us at Askfirstname.lastname@example.org