Horticulture News: Hummingbirds are still plentiful as fall looms

By Kim Cowherd Published:

People have always liked the hummingbird. The hummingbird’s tiny size is a big part of the fascination. But its brilliant color, dazzling aerobatics, swift flight, and personality also delight and entertain us throughout the summer.

Many homeowners put out feeders and also plant flowers and shrubs that specifically are for hummingbirds. Many of you have asked this week when to bring in your feeders, as hummingbirds generally migrate from Kentucky in the winter months.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is one of 23 species of hummers that frequent North America and the only species that breeds in the eastern United States. This species is the second most widely distributed hummingbird in North America.

The Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is the most widely-distributed hummingbird in North America. These are the two species that are most prevalent in Kentucky.

Dr. Tom Barnes, Extension Wildlife Specialist, tells us more about the basic habits of hummers:

Each bird must eat 100 percent of its body weight in nectar every day to survive. Depending on air temperatures and activity levels, this means the birds feed anywhere from every five minutes to every hour. The rest of the time is spent resting and digesting the food. Hummingbirds cannot smell very well. Many of the ruby-throated hummingbird’s preferred flowers are not fragrant, unlike flowers used by insects.

Males typically live 2½ years, and females typically live 3½ years. More than 50 percent of each year’s young never make the migration trip south and die for a variety of reasons, including succumbing to predators and the weather.

MIGRATION FOLLOWS BLOOM TIMES

Hummingbirds’ migration patterns follow the bloom times of their food plants. Arrival time on the breeding grounds tends to not occur until food plants are blooming. Departure time also corresponds with the end of the blooming season for food plants. This bloom time frame in Kentucky is from mid-April through late September.

Begin to attract the birds by feeding them. Hummingbirds love artificial feeders, because one feeder can provide the daily nectar equivalent of 2,000 to 5,000 flowers. Why visit a flower when you can get that much nectar from a bottle?

Male birds usually are the first to arrive at a feeder and will establish a territory. Also ensure that you have native flowering plants that will also invite hummers to your garden.

The time to set the feeder out is by mid-April, hopefully several days before the first bird arrives in the spring. Hummingbirds are highly territorial, so you may wish to put out more than one feeder. A single male will be able to effectively keep all other comers away from one feeder.

Females will come to feeders because they are attracted to the male and his territory. When putting out feeders, make sure that feeders are not visible (at least initially) from other feeders and are in an open area at least 15 feet apart. Hummers, sensing confinement, apparently do not like feeders close to houses, windows, or eaves. You can increase hummingbird acceptance of a feeder by placing ripe fruit next to it. It will attract gnats and other insects that the birds relish.

The rubythroat is surprisingly numerous throughout much of Kentucky in the summertime. It generally arrives in mid-April, although it has been recorded to arrive in the state as early as March 29. The arrival of the hummingbirds is timed to coincide with the flush of spring flowers that provide them nectar.

By late July the birds begin their migration southward to their wintering grounds in southern Mexico, Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, making use of another large flush of hummingbird flowers in bloom at this time.

WHEN TO REMOVE FEEDERS

There is great debate about when to take a hummingbird feeder down. Some people say the birds will not migrate if feed is still available, which is not true. You should leave your feeder up as long as the birds are coming to it.

Migrant hummers normally show up by late July and will continue passing through until October. Keep in mind that fall flowers that are preferred by hummers are still blooming into September and October, so food will still be available even if your feeder is not.

If you leave a feeder up, you might help a late migrant make the journey or you might get some unusual visitors. For instance, in 1998 a black-chinned hummingbird ate a feeder from Dec. 12-16 in McCracken County. Rufous hummingbirds were seen from Nov. 23-Dec. 30, 1998 in Carlisle County and on Jan. 4, 1999, in Lexington.

For more information on hummingbirds, log on to: http://www.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/for/for97/for97.pdf. Or for a printed copy contact the Franklin County Cooperative Extension Service, 695-9035 or email DL_CES_Franklin@email.UKy.edu.

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