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Answers from the Hummingbird Expert

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Answers From the Hummingbird Expert

Lanny Chambers

Special thanks to Lanny Chambers, for providing his time and expertise in responding to your questions.

From: Hattieville, Arizona

Q: I have a large flower garden and I also put out hummingbird feeders, I have 5 or 6 hummingbirds , I live in a rural area and a neighbor a mile away has no flowers planted but has several large hummingbird feeders that have about 20 to 30 hummingbirds swarming around them all the time. Why would they prefer sugar water over natural food sources?

A: It's hard to guess without seeing both yards, but here are several possibilities:

  • Your neighbor's yard may have better habitat, perhaps more trees or a creek, and more insects for the birds to eat.

  • You may have a cat or other predator in your yard.

  • You may have one territorial hummer that's keeping other birds away. When there are enough hummingbirds in one place, locating several feeders in a cluster prevents one bird from defending them all because the competition is overwhelming.

  • Do you sterilize and refill your feeders at least every two days?

  • You neighbor may be on a natural migration route, where the birds are following a creek or ridge.

Q: There has been a lot of controversy over red dye in sugar water. I buy a premix powder to add to water for my humming bird feeder, on the label it says FDC Red #40. Is this safe to use in my feeder?

A: Aha! We may have found the answer to your first question. Hummingbirds seem not to care for the taste of red dye; in preference tests, they almost always choose plain sugar water. The safety of these mixes is untested, but many hummingbird rehabilitators believe the dye can cause tumors and other health problems. Furthermore, dye is completely unnecessary, since natural flower nectar is colorless and contains almost nothing but sucrose and water. See if you don't get more hummers this year with plain sugar water at a 1:4 ratio. You'll save money, too.

From: St. Paul, Minnesota

Q: A few years back, Northern MN & WI had bitter cold temps in mid-May, resulting in an alarming death rate of many Hummers. Hundreds of Hummers were found frozen to death on the ground and patio decks. What measures can we do, other than making sure their Nectar feeders haven't froze, to ensure their survival if our so-called Spring, turns to bitter cold temps after they have already migrated north.

A: That's all you can do. Nature spreads the migration over several months to limit the risk to the species from unseasonal weather, and while the earliest arrivals may have an advantage in choosing good territories, they're betting their lives that the weather will cooperate. Some years they win, other years they lose. It's not a conscious process; each bird's genes contain a built-in calendar, and each is a little different.

This gamble has been going on for many thousands of years, and if the loss of a small percentage of the population some years were not a reasonable risk, those genes would not be passed on and it wouldn't occur. All species include individuals that "push the envelope" in various ways--this is how evolution works to expand their ranges, both spatially and temporally, to exploit new opportunities as the climate and habitat change over time.

Notice this map does not show the migration between!

From: Arlington, Virginia

Q: I've just moved to Newport, RI from Arlington, VA. Can you give me an idea of about when the hummers will arrive in Newport?

A: Looking at the last few years' migration maps, you'll see the first birds arrived very consistently in mid April.

Q: When should I put up the feeders if I live in Newport, RI?

A: Watch their approach on this year's map. If the migration is typical, hang your feeder around April 5, a week or so before you expect the first birds.


From: Birmingham, Alabama
Inglenook Elementary

Q: Have you ever heard of a ruby throated building a nest in a cedar tree? Thanks

A: Because their range is so large, Ruby-throated aren't especially choosy and build nests in many kinds of trees. I haven't heard specifically of nesting in cedars, but pines are a popular choice in your area.

From: Iselin, New Jersey
Iselin Middle School

Q: How does the hummingbird know where to migrate? Thanks Timmy

A: It's one of their instincts. Hummingbirds are diurnal migrants (i.e., they only fly during the day), so they probably use the sun as their compass. We think their genes tell them to fly in a particular direction for a certain length of time, then pick a good place to stop.

From: St. Louis, Missouri
Sappington School, LEAP program

Q: What do the noises that hummingbirds make mean? Is it a language?

A: Howdy, neighbors! Not a real language with words, but each of the sounds has a special meaning to other hummingbirds. Most of the sounds are warnings to other hummers to stay out of the bird's territory. This includes both vocal and wing sounds (the "hum" as they fly).

Q: What was your most exciting experience with a hummingbird?

A: Wow, that's really hard to say--as a bander, I get excited every time I have one in my hand. But maybe it was one rainy afternoon in Colorado, when I made a feeder out of a soda can and hung it inside my car, where I was reading; hummers started flying through the open car window to feed, and eventually TWO birds landed on my outstretched finger to share the goodies. That gave me goosebumps!

Lanny Chambers
St. Louis, MO
Be sure to visit Lanny's Hummingbird Website

How to Use FAQ's About Journey North Species
Since 1995, experts have contributed answers to students' questions about each Journey North species. These questions and answers are archived in our FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions) section. You can use today's Answers from the Expert above, along with those from previous years, in the activities suggested in the lesson, "FAQ's About Journey North Species"


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