It’s time to start thinking about bringing the hummingbird feeders out of storage. These little winged favorites should be returning to yards across the eastern United States and Canada in the upcoming weeks. In fact, in some locations they’re already back.
I usually hang out my own feeders the first week of April, but I often have to wait a week or two before I finally get a visiting hummingbird. About the earliest I have ever known hummingbirds to get back is the first week of April. The dates around April 8 to April 10 seem a popular arrival date. For some people, however, it may be mid or even late April before they see one.
You definitely increase your chances if you just have a feeder available with a fresh mixture of one part sugar to four parts water. This is the formula that closely matches the sweetness of nectar available from flowers.
There’s always a temporary surge in the numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds from mid-April to mid-May as many of these small winged wonders migrate through Northeast Tennessee. Many of these early arrivals are making only temporary stops at our feeders or in our gardens. The majority of them probably continue to travel farther north to spend the summer.
Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake an arduous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day!
By May, the spring hummingbird migration is basically finished for the region. A few of the female hummingbirds, finding our yards to their liking, will conclude their epic journey here and spend the next few months tending to a new generation of hummers.
She lays two eggs. There are some reasons why it’s always a pair of eggs. First, the nest is so small that there is barely room for two eggs, let alone more. Second, once the young hatch, the nest has just enough room to accommodate them as they grow, fed well by their mother. Third, feeding two hungry young hummingbirds is a demanding task. A female hummingbird has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive. It’s a full-time job during the daylight hours. She’s pressed hard to succeed at raising two young. Attempting to rear more would most likely prove impossible.
The entire process — from building the nest to incubating eggs to tending hatchlings — requires a commitment of more than two months. The female hummingbird builds her exquisite nest from lichen and various plant fibers, much of it held together by collected spider silk.
Once that time-consuming task is completed, the female hummingbird lays her eggs. She will spend about the next 18 days incubating them. Once they hatch, the young will remain in the nest about 28 days (nearly a month) and depend on their mother to bring them regular meals. If that’s not enough, the ruby-throated hummingbird is known to nest twice in a season. It certainly must rank a female hummingbird as one of the busiest of our summer birds.
Of course, a few adult males will end their migration in the region. The males, however, don’t assist with the rearing of their own young. For male hummingbirds, summer is mainly a time to thrive on the abundance of nectar-bearing blooms, as well as a profusion of tiny insects and spiders that also make up a good portion of their diet.
If all goes well — and that’s not the case always, unfortunately — a new generation of hummingbirds may join the adults at feeders in late summer and early fall as a second wave of migration begins. Not surprisingly, hummingbirds face an assortment of predators that can prove detrimental to nesting success. Even prolonged periods of rain or cold weather can produce unfortunate consequences.
Nevertheless, these tiny birds manage to replenish the population each year, ensuring that they will be back in future spring seasons to delight and entertain hosts who have missed them through the bleak months of winter.
I want to close this week’s column by asking for help from readers. I love to document the yearly arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds. I’d appreciate hearing from any readers who would like to share the information about their first hummingbird sighting of the season. Simply send me your name and location, as well as the date and time when your first hummingbird arrived. The best way to contact me is by my email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Messages are also welcome through my Facebook account at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.
I’ll post the arrival dates I receive in upcoming columns this spring. This is a tradition I have enjoyed observing for years, and I hope all the hummingbird fans out there will participate.
I know I can’t wait for them to be back. I’m looking forward to hosting them again for another six to seven months before they once again depart this coming October to spend the winter in the tropics.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. He has been writing about birds and the natural world for almost 20 years. Some of his favorite birds include hummingbirds, shorebirds, warblers and owls.