Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Hummingbirds of Winter

It’s a wonderful feeling when I find out fascinating new information about nature.

Calliope Hummingbird of Lafitte's Cove
by Dan Pancamo CC BY-SA 2.0
This week it has come to my attention that people see hummingbirds in winter here in central Maryland, where I live. Not the ruby-throated hummingbirds that we have in the summer, but calliope and rufous hummingbirds from the West. They should be in Mexico but instead end up in Maryland and other places on the East coast.

It turns out that lots of people around here leave their feeders out during the winter for the hummingbirds. There are all kinds of tricks online about how to keep your feeders from freezing, for example here.

And then there’s this interesting fact: when they can’t find nectar, hummingbirds eat insects. They can pick them off of leaves or grab them in midair, which is known as “hawking”. In fact, while hummingbirds fatten up on nectar to begin their migration South, they fuel up on insects to begin their migration North.

I spend hours each week obsessively watching birds, reading about birds, and thinking about birds. Hummingbirds are some of my favorites. So how could all of this knowledge have escaped my attention until now? I think the answer lies in the source of my information: other, more experienced birders, who have been feeding and watching birds for much longer than I have. What I actually get to see in the world of birds and nature depends on where I am and when. What I read about birds and nature is equally serendipitous. There’s so much to know about nature, and that’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating. It’s not surprising that foragers, human societies that rely for subsistence on hunting and gathering in their natural environment, require years of training and experience to become good hunters and gatherers. It’s also not surprising that they depend on more experienced elders to teach them. Why should I be any different?

In case you like to feed hummingbirds, or would like to try, consider winter feeding. And keep in mind these important “don’ts”:
  • Don’t dye the water red! Hummingbirds are attracted to red flowers (like those on feeders), but they couldn’t care less what color the nectar is. Red dye is harmful to hummingbirds.
  • Don’t use commercial nectar! It is full of preservatives and dyes, which are harmful to hummers just like they are to humans. It’s cheaper and safer to make your own nectar. Boil one part sugar in four parts water, cool, and serve. Use regular ole white sugar, not honey or any other sugar substitute.
Mexican Long-Tongued Bat at Hummingbird
Feeder by Ken Cosma CC BY 2.0
  • Don’t worry that keeping your feeders out will make hummers stay around when they should be migrating! They know what to do and when to do it, and that decision has to do with their internal clock rather than the availability of food. You should keep your feeders out as long as you’re seeing hummingbirds.
  • Don’t be surprised if other critters find their way to your feeder!

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