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Feathered Friends – Hummingbird questions

A female ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

I recently enjoyed watching three female ruby-throated hummingbirds engage in minor skirmishes around the sugar water feeders hanging on my front porch. Female hummingbirds are only slightly less militant than their male counterparts at dueling for precedence at feeders. As I watched, two of the more assertive hummingbirds kept a jealous watch, forcing the third female to make some sneaky flights to the feeders when the two other watchful females let their attention lapse.

Both male and female hummingbirds are pugnacious and intolerant of other hummingbirds, but males have always impressed me as much more aggressive. Indeed, some definite excitement got injected into my hummingbird watching when a male sporting the namesake bright ruby-red throat patch zipped into view and couldn’t decide whether to court or contest the females. He ultimately decided to scatter the female hummers into the branches of some nearby shrubs. So much for chivalry among hummers.

Hummingbirds have also been the subject of some recent queries from readers. Paul Burnette asked in his email if I have noticed decreased activities of hummingbirds in East Tennessee this year. 

“We have a couple feeders out yearly,” Paul wrote. “The last several years had a lot of activity. We enjoy them from our back patio.”

Paul explained that this summer has offered disappointing hummingbird watching. “With the same feeders available to the hummingbirds, we’ve only seen two or three sporadically over the past month and none prior to that.”

Paul asked if ruby-throated hummingbird migration patterns or population have changed.

I replied to Paul’s email with my own personal hummer observations. The season did begin a little later than usual, at least at my home. I noticed a boom in hummer numbers in late April and early May, then they all but vanished until early June. At that time, the three females and a male became daily visitors. Now, even those visitors have become less frequent.

There are several reasons to explain these fluctuations in hummingbird numbers. For instance, here are several types of flowers — bee balm, crocosmia and gladiola  — starting to bloom at my home, and that is probably true elsewhere. As wildflowers and garden flowers of summer come into bloom in the wild, hummers become less dependent on our feeders. Including blooming plants in your landscape encourages hummingbird visits at your home.

As I’ve already indicated, hummingbird numbers fluctuate from year to year. Having an abundance of them one year does not guarantee the same in future years. I expect a spike in numbers soon, which will be caused by the gradual start of fall migration for hummingbirds. Almost every year, hummer numbers rise dramatically in late July and early August and will continue to climb through the end of September. The reason for this spike is simple. Fall migration begins and birds that journeyed farther north in the spring start making their way south again, but at a slower pace than in spring. In addition, this year’s generation of new hummingbirds will have left their nests and added to the population. So, I advised patience and told Paul that he should start seeing more hummers in a few more weeks.

Karen Andis also sent me an email about a visitor other than a hummingbird at her sugar water feeders.

“Today for the first time, a butterfly has been feeding on our feeders,” Karen wrote in her email. “It goes from one to the other as though it has different flavors.”

Along with her report on the observation, she had a question. “Would this cause any type of contamination that might harm the hummers?”   

Karen’s question was interesting, but I doubt a butterfly would cause any problems by stealing sips of sugar water. Butterflies and hummingbirds visit the same flowers all the time, so they are used to sharing the same nectar sources. Hummingbirds must also contend with other nectar-loving insects, including bees, moths and ants.

In my own experience, feeding hummingbirds can even have the added bonus of attracting other sugar water-sippers, including downy woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice and even Baltimore orioles.