Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Adirondack Birding: Feeding Hummingbirds

Having a hummingbird feeder near your home and being able to regularly monitor the activity around this colorful structure can provide some insight into the summer life of this tiny, iridescent bird.

When the hummingbird returns in the spring, this petite creature tends to seek out the same general region that served as its home the previous summer. Older adults are known to claim the same surroundings which they used the past year as their breeding territory.

Since these birds are already familiar with the area and know the location of various sources of food, it is soon after their arrival that they appear outside a window to take advantage of the artificial nectar placed there.

The prolonged period of migration in which a hummingbird engages in spring decimates its internal food reserves. This is why a hummingbird may be seen regularly at a feeder in May following its return to the North Country. Also, since natural food sources for the hummingbird may be scarce when it returns, a feeder becomes an important aid in allowing an early arriver to survive, especially during cool springs when there is a delay in the blooming process.

The males are always the first individuals to return and begin to appear in early to mid May, depending on the local climate. Because of the seasonal territorial instincts of the males, it is uncommon to have several different adults at a feeder during the first half of May. A person that watches a feeder in the weeks following Mother’s Day may witness aerial confrontations between two very colorful hummingbirds vying for the right to claim ownership to that site.

It is not until later in May that the females arrive. In the first week to two following their return, the amount of sugar water consumed by these needle-billed birds is high, as the females attempt to reestablish fat deposits before entering into their nesting period. During the very end of May, and through the first week or two of June, a female perched on a limb near a feeder may be seen being courted by the resident male. In his attempt to impress her, the male rapidly flies up, and then dives down directly in front of her, quickly ascending again to a similar height before plunging again. This up and down aerial display is repeated numerous times as the male tries to win her favor.

When the time comes for her to begin construction of her walnut-size nest, she may leave the general vicinity of the feeder. At this time, the female limits her intake of nectar and begins to eat many more small insects, spiders, and other bugs that occur on the foliage and twigs of both trees and shrubs. Also, the male hummingbird may visit the feeder more infrequently as an increasing number of wildflowers come into bloom. (The absence of females from my feeder over the past week indicates that the hummingbirds in the area around my house are now busy nesting.)

Once the eggs hatch, the hungry nestlings must be fed a diet rich in animal protein, not the sugary nutrients that occur in flower nectar or in the liquid found at feeders.

The absence of the females from hummingbird feeders continues until the fledglings are old enough to follow their mom to productive feeding sites. Once they develop to the stage at which they can follow their mom, the fledglings begin to incorporate increasingly more carbohydrate matter into their diet. Throughout the remainder of the summer, these individuals may be seen hovering in front of clumps of brightly colored flowers extracting nectar, and eating whatever small bugs they may find in these floral structures, as well as from hummingbird feeders.

The current value of a feeder to a hummingbird is minimal, as other food items are far more important to these tiny birds at this point in their life. In another month, however, the story will be totally different, as their demand for this fluid spikes.

Additionally, there will be numerous young birds that may not have hatched quite yet, all clamoring for sweets. While the summer season may seem short, it is more than adequate to allow this tiny bird the opportunity to produce a new generation of these fast-moving and unique sounding birds here in the Adirondacks.

Illustration: A color plate illustration from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1899), showing a variety of hummingbirds.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books about nature in the Adirondacks.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

3 Responses

  1. Mary's Mind says:
  2. Sharon says:

    Great information, we recently purchased a summer home in the Adirondacks and greatly enjoy the humming birds.