We first spotted our hummingbird in mid-June just as the bee balm in the front flowerbed started to bloom. “Hubert” was a gray-green blur hovering in and around the bright red flowers. We put the binoculars by the front window so that we could a closer look at him/her. One afternoon I got a very good look at his bright red throat (him!), but the very next day Deborah saw an unadorned green body (her! – pictured). We soon found out that we were both right. There were two hummingbirds, one male and one female feasting on the bee balm nectar.
The male turned out to be a very occasional visitor, but the female (who by consensus became “Hubert”) was there during all daylight hours. These observations fit known hummingbird behaviors. Males tend to stake out broad territories that include as many females as possible, and they then have to patrol all of those territories to keep out any encroaching males. The females, though, select smaller territories that have a good nectar supply and good spots for building a nest. The bee balm and the other flowers in the yard were obviously good nectar sources, and the very open red maple and Norway spruce trees in the yard were excellent nesting sites. Just to be sure that we had a good enough habitat to keep her attention, though, we hung out a nectar feeder filled with a sugar water solution. She found it almost immediately. The females are entirely responsible for the rearing of the young, so we wanted to be sure that she had sufficient food.
Hummingbirds are important pollinators for the flower species from which they feed. Over one hundred and fifty North American plants have long, deep flowers that are ideally suited to encourage feeding and pollination by hummingbirds. A great deal of the hummingbird’s food energy, though, comes from eating a wide range of insects and other arthropods. They have been referred to as “nectar powered fly catchers.” They also drink tree sap from the ends of broken twigs and the feeding scars made by woodpeckers and flickers.
A third hummingbird showed up at the feeder a week or so ago. Hubert made great, arching flights around it as it fed on the nectar. This new bird did not have the distinctive red throat of the male, but did not seem to be another, potentially competing female either. We decided that it must be one of Hubert’s fledges going through its incredibly short period of post-nestling instruction and cooperation. After hatching and two weeks of nestling life, fledges have only about ten days to mature and learn to take care of themselves. The life of a hummingbird is a very hurried affair!
Every evening Hubert perches up above our deck either on a telephone line or on a bare branch of our spruce tree. We clean and re-fill the nectar feeder every week and have been successful in keeping her close by even though the bee balm has faded. We use a standard formula for our nectar: one part cane sugar to four parts water. Tap water or well water should always be used to provide the birds with a source of minerals. Honey should never be added to the nectar because it can ferment and become toxic. Fruit juices, jello, brown sugar, or food coloring should also never be used in hummingbird food.
Hubert may stick around until mid to late September. We see an occasional visiting male at the feeder, but only Hubert is there every day. These observations also fit hummingbird ecology. The males take off on their long southern migration sometime in July. They follow the blooming of late summer flowers all the way down to southern Mexico or Central America. The females will take a similar migration route but will do it as the early fall flowers bloom. This separation of migration times by gender enables the species to utilize a greater and more diverse resource base for the fuel they need to power their flights. And, thankfully, research has shown that providing nectar in feeders does not affect the fall departure times of the females.
It’s nice to think that we might have two more months to watch Hubert around our yard!