Leave the feeders up for a while

Published 10:44 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

A few years ago, I read a newspaper article saying it was time to take down hummingbird feeders, because leaving them up tempted the summer residents to stay past the time when they should be migrating.

Wondering last week when that time was, I researched hummingbird migration. Result: I’m leaving mine up until first frost.

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The ruby throated hummingbird, the only one we get hereabouts, is the only breeding hummingbird in Eastern North America. They are unusual birds, indeed.

Their average length— three inches; average wingspan — four inches; average weight — (two to six grams). Their wings beat 53 times per second, 3,180 times a minute, 190,800 times an hour. Their legs are so short that they can’t walk and can’t hop, though they can perch.

They have great color vision, preferring orange and red flowers, but their vision goes all the way into the ultraviolet spectrum. They love nectar from tubular flowers — honeysuckle, trumpet vine, jewelweed and red morning glory, but they’re primarily insectivores, dining on mosquitoes, gnats, tiny bees, spiders, fruit flies and aphids. The nectar just gives them the energy to hunt bugs.

The oldest known specimen (from a leg band) was a 9-year-old female from West Virginia.

January finds them in the jungles between southern Mexico and northern Panama. They’re happy eating bugs, but the days are pretty short. As daylight lengthens, they start to eat and eat and eat, bulking up to six grams, about a fifth of an ounce.

The males leave first, the females about 10 days later. They make their way to the Gulf of Mexico, then in one day and night cross 500 miles in 20 hours to the Gulf Coast of America.

After that epic flight, they continue north to their old “stomping grounds” at about 20 miles per day. They arrive in mid-May where they spent the previous summer weighing only two grams — just a third of what they weighed on departure.

The males court, mate and then live solo until early August, and then they’re off. Men! Of course, they have to bulk up before they go — up to six grams again, but this is the time of greatest insect population.

The ladies and babes follow by early September, each going solo, as there are no flocks. It’s all instinct. They fly alone. The trigger to urge them to head south is not temperature but time of daylight.

As days shorten, they eat, eat, eat — then, go. They just gotta go!

It’s not necessary to take down your feeders. The hummingbirds you see in mid-September are not yours but the ones of some guy in Montreal or Toronto. “Your” birds will probably show up next May. Meanwhile, leave your feeders up to nourish migrants on the wing.

So much for believing what you read in the newspaper.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.