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franklin county times

Want to encourage hummingbirds? Put out a feeder

By Staff
August 15, 2004
I've enjoyed watching the hummingbirds at my feeder lately. There have been quite a few. I suspect they have been lured by the jewel weed blooming at the edge of the woods.
Hummingbirds are native to the New World, so they were really a surprise to the first European settlers. The settlers speculated hummers were a cross between an insect and a bird. By the time Europeans landed, Native Americans had incorporated hummers into their lives and rituals. The Pilgrims met American Indians who were wearing hummingbird earrings. In Mexico, Aztec kings wore cloaks made of hummingbird skins. Inspired, Columbus sent a hummingbird skin to Rome as a gift for the Pope.
It's easy to see why Europeans were so intrigued by the tiny birds. While most birds get power only from the wings' down-stroke, hummingbirds gain strength on the up-stroke as well. As a result, they are very strong fliers with the ability to fly right, left, up, down and backward. A hummingbird's tiny feet can be used for perching, but not movement. If a hummingbird needs to move two inches, it will fly.
Strong wings are necessary for the long migrations most species undertake. Our common species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, can migrate to destinations up to 2,000 miles away. Ruby-throated hummers travel from North Wisconsin to Mexico. Most will either go through Florida and island-hop to Mexico or follow the Texas coast to Mexico. Many experts believe some of the tiny birds actually fly across the Gulf of Mexico! The average flight speed on this journey is 27 miles per hour.
After migration, many return to the exact same location. I've had some to return to the empty nail where our feeder usually hangs. After such a journey, I can't blame them if they are perturbed when the feeder is not ready and waiting.
Before the migration, it's necessary for the birds to fatten up on flower nectar and tiny insects. In fact, most almost double their weight by adding 2 grams of fat to their normal 3-gram frame. They also stop along the way to feed and accumulate energy.
I've been told the largest hummingbirds you'll see in summer are first- year hatchlings. These big guys have not migrated yet. After migration, they come back slim and trim and are never able to regain the weight. The smallest you see are probably males. During mating season, the males neglect to feed properly and can lose 20 percent of their body weight. After the season is over, the males are weak and tired and must feed voraciously to regain the weight. Overall, they are weakened so the male's life span is generally only three-quarters as long as the female's.
I may not always be prompt in putting up a feeder, but I do usually have something blooming in my garden to attract the hummers. Early arrivals can feast on the red buckeye and coral trumpet honeysuckle. Later in spring, the perennial salvias are a popular choice. In late summer, hummingbirds flock to jewelweed, trumpet creeper, flowering maple, cardinal flower and Turk's cap mallow.
Some other hummingbird favorites include butterfly bush, bee balm, cypress vine, pentas and firecracker plant. Whatever you decide to plant, typical hummingbird flowers will have several characteristics in common. Usually they are scentless and tubular in shape, with some red coloration. As the hummer pierces the tube in search of nectar, her forehead will rub the stamens and pistils. She will then transfer pollen to the next flower.
If you want to encourage hummingbirds, put out a feeder and plant some of the flowers listed above. Make sure water is available, too. Hummingbirds have a great need for water to wash down all those bugs and nectar. With loss of habitat and with migration coming up, the tiny jeweled birds need all the help they can get.
Gail Barton is
coordinator of the Horticulture Technology Program at Meridian Community College.

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