Hummingbird Facts
Q&A with Lanny Chambers in 2003


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: How does the hummingbird know where to migrate?

A: It's one of their instincts. Hummingbirds are diurnal migrants, 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.

Q: When will hummingbirds arrive in Newport, Rhode Island? When should I put up the feeders? I recently moved to Newport from Arlington, Virginia.

A: Looking at the last few years' migration maps, you'll see the first hummingbirds arrived very consistently in mid-April. Watch their approach on Journey North's migration map. If the migration is typical, hang your feeder around April 5th, a week or so before you expect the first birds.

Q: Have you ever heard of a ruby-throated hummingbirds building a nest in a cedar tree?
I live in Birmingham, Alabama.

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.

Q: Is it safe to use red dye in my hummingbird feeder? There's controversy over red dye in sugar water. I buy a premix powder to add to water for my feeder. The label says FDC Red #40.

A: 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.

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

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: What measures can we take to ensure that migrating hummingbirds survive our so-called Spring that turns into bitter cold, other than making sure their nectar feeders don't freeze?
A few years back, Northern MN and WI had bitter cold temps in mid-May, resulting in an alarming death rate. Hundreds of hummers were found frozen to death on the ground and patio decks.

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.


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
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