Spring 2008
Answers From the Hummingbird Expert
Teaching Suggestions | Q & A
Lanny Chambers

Special thanks to Lanny Chambers from hummingbirds.net
for providing his time and expertise
to respond to your hummingbird questions.



Q: Is this an unusual ocurrence: We have a female rufous which wintered over in Dothan, Alabama (southeast Alabama near Florida state line) from late November and still remains here today (March 16).

A: Not too unusual. Although most Rufous winter in southern Mexico, a small percentage of the population spends the winter in the southeast. These individuals may return year after year to the same feeders and gardens.


Q: When should I put out my hummingbird feeder? I live in Wilmington, Delaware and have enjoyed the ruby-throated hummer for many years. Last week I noticed they were sighted in the southeastern states. I believe the "scouts" will be shopping soon for their season home. Thank you in advance for your help.
A: There aren't any scouts, some hummingbirds simply migrate earlier than others. If you're watching the map, you know someone in Delaware reported a hummer on March 27, 2008. So NOW would be a good time!

New Jersey

Q: Isn't it better to attract hummers with natural plants? How can we do this in our school? We do have gardens, what plants should we use? I heard that feeders are bad for the birds because the sugar-based food sits in the sun, can grow fungus, and also ferments to alcohol. All this can actually make birds sick.
A: Feeders are bad if not kept clean; if you're not prepared to clean them every other day in summer, better to plant flowers instead. For gardening advice, see Journey North's How to Create a Haven for Hummingbirds, or visit a local nursery.

Q: What kinds of hummingbirds can I find around my school?
I live in Gloucester County, New Jersey.
A: Ruby-throated is the only species that nests east of the Great Plains.


Q: When is the best time to put a feeder out to start attracting the hummers? When is the earliest time to put a feeder out in these North Woods? I live in Iron River, Michigan.
A: Watch the map. Bear in mind that most hummingbirds will arrive a few weeks after the earliest sightings.


Q: Are the hummingbird moths a danger to the hummingbirds? We only had 1 hummingbird last year. Normally we have several. But we saw several of what looks to me like a hummingbird moth.
A: Sphinx moths are completely harmless.


Q: Do you have a video about a hummingbird hatching?
A: No, sorry. But we do have some slideshows. Go to the hummingbird study's Journey North for Kids feature to see them.

Q: Their size amazes me! How big are they when they hatch?
About the size of a honeybee.

Q: What's the best way to attract hummers? My husband and I live in Darien, Illinois. He tries every year to get a glimpse of a few hummingbirds with his feeder. It is hit or miss. He uses the red sugar water. Is there a better way?
A: Yes, red flowers are the best way. Red dye in the feeder is unnecessary and probably bad for hummingbird health.


Q: Is it true hummers won't feed from a feeder with any sort of strange smell? I have multiple hummingbird feeders. They totally avoid one of my feeders. They sit down, put their tiny head down, then fly off to the next one. Last year I had only one and I found myself filling that feeder every day.
A: No, a hummingbird's sense of smell is not very good. But their sense of taste is excellent, and there's probably something in that feeder they don't like, such as soap or mold. Try soaking the feeder in a dilute bleach solution.

Q: Is there a reason I am seeing females when the hummingbirds first arrive and then later in the summer I see males?
A: They're apparently not claiming territories in your yard. Anna's Hummingbird, along the coast, doesn't migrate, but other parts of Washington get different species that do. It's hard to guess what's happening without knowing where you live and what species you're seeing, and when.

New Jersey

Q: Since my hummers share the backyard with all their feathered friends, are there any species that would pose a danger or threat to their safety? We reside in South Jersey. I have many feeders for many different species of bird that visit my backyard on a daily basis, and this includes the hummers.
A: Hummers can take care of themselves and are not easy to catch. A few get eaten by hawks, flycatchers, and orioles. Seed-eaters are no threat.

North Carolina

Q: What are the lowest temperatures that hummingbirds can withstand?
I had 2 stay all winter here in southern North Carolina and they made it through evenings where the temperature dropped to 20 degrees.
A: It depends on the species. A healthy Rufous Hummingbird can easily survive a few degrees below zero, several nights in a row, if it has enough food and shelter from the wind. I've banded them in 8" of snow.

Q: Is it true that their chirps are noises made by the tails?
A: In one case, yes: the loud noise at the bottom of a male Anna's dive display is made by air passing through the tailfeathers. But the twitters and scolding you hear from Ruby-throated are vocal sounds.


Q: The commercial hummer food has protein and vitamins plus calcium in it which I was told hummers need especially in early spring. The females need the most calcium but it has that red dye in it. Is there a home made solution that I can make that has vitamins plus calcium in it without the dye?
A: Hummingbirds get all the nutrition they need from the insects and spiders they catch, as they have for thousands of years. The sugar in your feeder provides energy they can use to hunt bugs. Please just use plain sugar and water in your feeder, and don't buy commercial mixes.


Q: What are the reasons that a mother would not return to the nest when babies have recently hatched? We were excited to discover a nest with two eggs in our orange tree and then to find them hatched three days later. It was March 10 in Southern California and still pretty cold at night. I took pictures up close once when the mother was away from the nest (not touching anything of course). A few days later I realized I hadn't seen the mother around. The next day I looked into the nest and saw that the babies had died. We were devastated and worried that maybe it was because we had taken those pictures and the mother had seen us close to the nest. Is that the likely explanation?
A: No, hummingbird hens are very reluctant to abandon a nest, especially after the eggs have hatched. Most likely the mother died from something having nothing to do with you.

Rhode Island

Q: Why are there gaps of time in feeder visits? I'm amazed at how consistent the hummingbirds are. They have arrived at my feeders within a day or two of April 25 the past several years. I have noticed too that they seem to disappear or lay low every year for about 2 weeks or so starting around May 20. They stop visiting the feeders. I may see a straggler here and there but for the most part they stop visiting the feeders. Then after about 2 weeeks the activity level picks right up again. My guess is that it has something to do with breeding. What's up with the layoff?
A: Good guess. Nesting often interrupts feeder activity, especially after chicks hatch. Baby hummers need bugs, not nectar, and mom spends most of her time hunting food for her chicks


Q: Who can move faster: a hummingbird or a sparrow?
A: In level flight, sparrows can fly faster than hummingbirds.

North Carolina

Q: How can you catch a hummingbird to band one?
A: Most banders use special traps, with a feeder inside for bait. Hummers are also caught in mist nets, but traps are safer for the birds, and more selective in what they catch. Remember, it's illegal to catch hummingbirds without a special permit.

Q: Where do you get the bands?
A: Bands are issued by the U.S. Geological Survey's Bird Banding Laboratory, the agency that licenses banders. In Canada, bands and licensing are handled by the Canadian Wildlife Service. The bands are printed on a flat sheet of thin aluminum, 300 per sheet, and banders must cut the sheet very precisely into individual bands, smooth the sharp edges, and form them into tiny circles. Banding hummers is not always as much fun as you might think!

Q. How do you register the information?
A: After every banding session, I enter each bird's details into a database program provided by the Bird Banding Lab, double check it for accuracy, and upload the new records by email to the BBL. It goes into their main computer, where it's available for future research purposes.