Fanciful fliers

Now's the time to fatten up those ruby-throated hummingbirds before their long journey south

Now's the time to fatten up those ruby-throated hummingbirds before their long journey south

August 02, 2008|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

The life Annette Ipsan once saved weighed no more than a dime.

Ipsan, horticulture educator for the Maryland Cooperative Extension of Washington County, says she still can remember the first time she was able to help revive a ruby-throated hummingbird. After sticking its little beak into sugar water solution, the bird fluttered back to life.

"The whole process took about 10 minutes," she says.

Ipsan says she's been fascinated by hummingbirds since she was a child. Her parents grew plants that attracted hummingbirds and also had feeders.

Although there are more than 320 species of hummingbirds worldwide, only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, calls the Tri-State area home. The ruby-throated hummingbird gets its name from the red feathers males display at their throat; the females' throats are white. Their wings flap about 90 times a second.


"To us it usually seems like a blur," Ipsan says.

Ipsan says the ruby-throated hummingbirds are inquisitive birds and will get close to humans. With their excellent eyesight, the birds are often attracted to color. She says a friend once wore a shirt with a flower print on it; a hummingbird came up to check out the faux blossoms but whizzed away when it realized it wasn't going to find any nectar.

JoAnn Miller, treasurer of Potomac Garden Club, says the hummingbirds at her Williamsport-area home are fascinated with color. She says when she wears red, the tiny birds will often fly up for a closer look.

One surprising fact that "hummer" fans know is that hummingbirds are not only social, but are also pretty chatty animals. Miller says you can often hear the birds as they protect their feeders. "When they get close, you can hear their wings beating," she says.

The season of the hummingbird begins in mid-April, when the birds come to the area to mate. Some hummingbird Web sites state that the male usually arrives first, but Ipsan says she's seen the females arrive as early as April. The birds will usually hang around the area until mid-October, sometimes later, before they start their migration to a warmer climate.

"Most people don't realize that (the hummingbirds) migrate from the East Coast over the Gulf of Mexico to South America," Ipsan says.

It is because of that long trek (for those who breed in Canada, it's nearly 3,000 miles) why Ipsan calls the hummingbirds "very resilient, sturdy little birds." Miller says it's that long trip "that's just astounding to me."

Ipsan says now's the perfect time to help the hummingbirds get ready for the return flight. The best way, she says, is by keeping them fed. Hummingbirds, she says, need to feed from 1,000 blossoms a every day to survive.

"They need to feed constantly," she says.

Miller says she's kept a feeder at her home for the past 10 years as well as including numerous hummingbird-attracting plants in her garden such as butterfly bushes and bee balm. She says she enjoys watching the birds feast.

"I think it's unusual how they hang and eat," she says. "They drink the nectar in mid-air because most of the feeders don't have a perch."

She's also attempted to have the hummingbirds feed from her hands. But, she says, she's been unsuccessful.

Joyce Angleberger, of Funkstown and recently certified Master Gardener, has had her own fascination of hummingbirds. She too has a feeder strategically situated out her glass back door to enjoy catching a glimpse of the male and female hummers she has spotted taking a dip in the nectar. Angleberger has even gone so far as to have mirrors in her home so that she can see the birds anywhere in her home.

"I've always had a passion for animal behavior," she says. " ... Hummingbirds are spectacular in the way they fly, feed, raise young and migrate."

Ipsan suggests planting plants that are favorites of the birds such as columbine, native columbine, bleeding heart, hibiscus, coral honeysuckle, bee balm, beard tongue, phlox and sage/salvia. Those plants, she says, do well in the heat and even planting them now can help the birds fatten up.

She also recommends using a hummingbird feeder that can be purchased at any home and garden store and fill it with white sugar water mixture. The best place to hang a feeder, she says, is in a shady spot so that sugar water solution lasts longer. Change the water more frequently if the feeder hangs in the sun.

Ipsan advises to make sure to clean out the hummingbird feeder once or twice a week. Pay closer attention in hot months. If the water becomes cloudy, she'll change it more often. To clean the feeder, Ipsan recommends washing it out with hot soapy water or in a dishwasher.

Ipsan has two feeders, so she can have one filled with sugar water while the other is being cleaned.

Because of their lightning speed in the air, Ipsan says hummingbirds really don't have any natural predators. Cats, she says, certainly try to capture a hummingbird or two - but rarely make contact. The bird's biggest obstacle, Ipsan says, is "the lack of food more than anything else."

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