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Ask the Expert

Answers from the Hummingbird Expert: 2011


Special thanks to Lanny Chambers for providing his time and expertise to respond to your hummingbird questions. This page contains questions and answers from 2011.

Teachers: You can use today's Answers from the Expert, along with those from previous years, in these activities suggested in "Learning from Experts".

Lanny Chambers
Visit Lanny's Hummingbird Web site!

Questions and Answers

From: Alabama

Although I live on the Gulf Coast in Alabama, I have not seen any of my hummers return yet. I hung the feeders today, because they have been reported near me. How often do I need to change the liquid while I'm awaiting their return?

A: Watch the color of the liquid. When it first starts to turn cloudy, it's time to change it. That could be every two to five days, depending on the temperature. Clean the feeder every time you change the syrup.

Q: Hi! I am giving a hummingbird program on Monday March 28th in Eufaula, AL. Our first ruby throat hummer arrived 1/2 hour ago. Last year the first arrived on March 22nd. Can you tell me the role of these male "scouts". We are friends with Fred Bassett in Montgomery, AL. He bands our hummers for us. Susan

A: There's no such thing as a scout, it's every bird for itself. The first males may have a good chance to claim the best territories, and hence mate with more females.

From: California

Q: I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hummers come thru before there is much in bloom. My yard is full of hummer and butterfly flowers but most bloom later in the year. In my area what can I plant for either or both that will bloom when they migrate thru which is starting now?

A: First of all, most of your hummingbirds (the Anna's) don't migrate but are present all year. Ask your local nursery for advice on early-blooming flowers. Hang a feeder, too.

From: Virginia

Q: Mr. Chambers: I feed hummingbirds from April 16th through September and early October sometimes. Some of my visitors appear gray and cream in color with long beaks although I cannot find pictures of or any description of gray hummingbirds in any bird book or the internet. Am I mistaken. Would appreciate your comments. Thank you.

A: They are female or immature Ruby-throated. The iridescent green feathers depend on the direction of the light for their color, and may appear gray under some conditions.

From: Pennsylvania

Q: If a flowering plant is sprayed with insecticide, will it be poisonous to hummingbirds all season or will it dissipate to safe levels within a certain period of time? Thank you!

A: I can't make general statements about insecticides. Read the label on the package, and ask the place you bought it. Or be like me, and don't use any insecticides.

Q: Are hummingbirds attracted to the human eye? I've had several occasions where hummers have hovered just in front of my eyes - to the point where I've had to squint! Yikes! Thank you!

A: They are as curious about you as you are about them. Don't worry, they won't hurt you.

Q: Hummers seem fearless, daring and courageous. Do they have a natural predator in the Northeastern U.S.(where I live)? If so, who or what is the predator(s)? Thank you!

A: No predator is a major factor in hummingbird mortality, but cats and praying mantises probably kill more hummers than the rest.

From: North Carolina
Jonathan Valley Elementary School

Q: I have heard that the red dye type food for hummingbird feeders isn't really that healthy for them and isn't necessary. Is this true and if so, what is best to feed them? Thank you!

A: No, it's not necessary, and it has not been proven safe. Just mix one part ordinary granulated sugar with four parts tapwater.

Q: How do you keep hummingbird feeders from attracting bees?

A: Use feeders that keep the syrup level far enough below the port that bees can't reach it. Unfortunately, some of the most popular feeders are very poorly designed in this respect.

From: Michigan

Q: Hi Lanny. We had an immature male leave after recuperating here for 10 days. If he makes it back this way in Spring will he have his red throat yet. How old will a male be when this happens? We babied him back to full strength for the 10 days and even put an umbrella over him as he would sit on the feeder for 6 hours sometimes and gave him fresh warmed nectar for 4 days. We hope we see him this Spring and yes he came down for morning feeder ritual when we called him - quite an experience. Thanks for any info.

A: Yes. Males molt into adult plumage over their first winter.

From: Virginia
Barcroft Elementary

Q: I have been trying to entice the cute little hummingbirds into our yard for several years. I know they are in the area as our friends, who live 6 blocks away, have seen them in their yard. What is the best way to get them into our yard and how early should I start preparing for them? Thank you, Betty Reid

A: Please visit my website and read the Attracting and Feeders pages. Watch the migration map there (and at Journey North) for timing help.

From: Ohio

Q: Do hummingbirds live in certain types of trees?

A: No, pretty much any tree will do. Location is more important than species.

Q: How high off of the ground do Hummingbirds nest? Is it variable?

A: Quite variable. Nests have been found from 2 to 80 feet high.

From: Texas

Q: I have several types of Hummingbirds visit my feeders every spring & summer. Do the same Hummingbirds and their offspring come back to the same place every year ?

A: In general, yes.

Q: Where do they prefer to make their nest high or low in trees ?

A: Yes.

From: Virginia

Q: I live in Vienna, VA. When should I put up my HB feeder? Thanks in advance.

A: Watch the migration maps.

From: Illinois

Q: What insects in particular do hummingbirds eat and how can I go about attracting those insects to my yard in Chicago?

A: Hummingbirds eat most any soft-bodied bugs they can swallow whole, including fruitflies, gnats, aphids, and tiny spiders, plus their eggs and larvae. If you have an insecticide-free lawn and garden, you'll have plenty of bugs.

Q: What is the biggest threat to the long term survival of the ruby throated hummingbird?

A: There doesn't seem to be any threat at present. More study is needed about their winter habitat requirements.

Oak Ridge Elementary
Q: How can I attract large numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds to my yard? I do get them, but never more than one or two at a time. One always seems to bully the other away from my feeders. I've had males and females, but only one at a feeder. I've seen pictures where there are many hummingbirds at a single feeder. How can I accomplish this?

A: Move south of Carbondale.

From: Quebec

Q: How can we find a hummingbird's nest? Is there a special way to check it?

A: Nearly all are found by accident, in the winter. You can try following a female from your feeder. Good luck with that.

From: New Hampshire

Q: The hummingbirds who use our little window feeder always perch rather than hover when they feed. Is this unusual?

A: Nope. Hummingbirds like to conserve energy like everyone else.

Q: After the babies hatch and fledge, but before they leave to go south, should we increase the number of feeders for them?

A: Maybe. If there's crowding or fighting for feeder spots, try adding more.

Q: How far apart should I put feeders?

A: For fewer than about 20 birds at one time, hang feeders out of sight of each other. For more birds, hang feeders a couple of feet apart in clusters.

From: New Jersey

Q: What type of habitat is required for a hummingbird in order for them to nest?

A: They need both nectar and insect food and a tree to nest in, obviously. Ruby-throated seem to prefer quiet places away from humans, often in a wetland.

Q: Is it possible to turn my small backyard into a nesting ground? I have tried and tried for 5 years and I think they are discouraged due to heavy bird traffic. Could this be the reason why?

A: Not many people have Ruby-throated nesting in their yards.

Q: I live in Warren, New Jersey. I always put the feeders the 1st day of April, there is no traffic at this time but who knows if someone comes early? By the way I've always wanted to know what kind of hummers visit my area... This one is a little one but always alone... Why?

A: You have Ruby-throated. You only see one at a time because they're aggressive and don't get along with each other.

Q: I'm not too clever with the maps... But when is the right time for the hummers to visit my area?

A: April 1 is good.

From: Connecticut

Q: When can we expect to see our first Hummingbirds in eastern, coastal CT?

A: Watch the maps.

Q: Can you give me a list of flowers that bloom thru the spring/summer that would help support hummingbirds? I have planted Bee Balm, Butterfly Bushes, Cardinal Flower, Coneflower and Lilacs. Trying to add more Northeast native perennials and bushes to build a continuous source of food for pollinators and birds.

A: Columbine and Red Buckeye are good early bloomers, but I don't know if they'll work in your area. See my website, and ask your local nursery.

How do humming birds flap their wings 100 times in one second?

A: It depends on the size of the bird. About 55 beats per second for your Ruby-throated.

Q: How far north do humming birds fly?

A: Some Rufous Hummingbirds nest 100 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska.

Q: Why are humming birds called humming birds?

A: Because of the sound their wings make when they fly.

From: Utah

Q: We see Black-Chinned, Broad-Tailed and a few Rufous Hummingbirds in our area of Utah. It doesn't matter how many feeders we put out, there are still aggressive displays among the birds. How large of an area do these birds need to protect as their own?

A: All of it! A male hummingbird will try to defend as much territory as he can. It's what they do, so relax and enjoy it.


From: Manitoba

Q: What is the life span of Hummingbirds?

A: The average is around 4 years. The oldest know hummingbird was 12.

Q: How many types of Hummingbirds are found in the worldwide?

A: About 340 species.

From: Massachusetts

Q: Do the same hummingbirds return each year to my feeders or is it just random?

A: Most hummingbirds return each year to where they hatched. But not necessarily to the exact same yard--if they were a mile away, you'd never know it. Roughly 10-15% will be the same individuals every year.

From: Florida

Q: When rufus hummingbirds migrate south, from, say, New York, does the same hummingbird make it to Mexico? I've heard that this is true. The ones who migrate live over 9 months so they can reach there for the winter. Do they make it back in the 9 months. Or am I thinking 9 weeks? Thanks, Donna Petersen

A: The average lifespan of a hummingbird is about four years, so there's plenty of time to make the round trip every year. They aren't like butterflies.

Q: Every August thru almost all of October a male and female ruby throat come for a visit. I live an hour south of Tampa, Florida on the gulf coast. My question is why do they stay only 3 months? What are they doing while they are here and if they are migrating why don't I see them in the spring heading south?

A: You are probably seeing a steady stream of birds migrating south after breeding, different individuals passing through each day. They arrive from across the Gulf in early March, but you may not notice if you don't have a feeder out then.

Q: My mature female Rufous left here in lakeland, FL on Feb. 14th. When would I expect that she would arrive in her breeding area assuming it is somewhere in the Northwest US or Canada?

A: I don't have an answer for you. That's never been documented.

Q: Are there banders who band for Rufous in the Northwestern USA. I would love to know if she made it there?

A: First, these birds would need to be banded in FLorida. Contact Fred Bassett of

From: New York

Q: I created a hummingbird garden with butterfly bushes, running water, various plants and a sugar-water feeder. For the last 4 years I get a hummingbird. I always only see one. First year looked like an adult, there after looked like a baby. Not sure, always just one hummer, every year. Is this the same hummingbird? I also notice the hummer stays till mid-October. I am located on Long Island in New York.

A: It's probably not the same bird, but a succession of visitors that use your garden every day.

Q: Three hummingbirds visit my feeders, but one hummingbird chases another specific one relentlessly. It makes it hard for it to feed. I only have a limited area to place feeders, and have put out 2 feeders, but the chasing continues. Is this typical behavior, or is there something else I can do so they can all feed?

A: Don't worry about them, this is completely normal. No bird can defend a feeder all the time, so everyone gets to eat eventually.

From: Pennsylvania

Q: This morning I saw a bird whiz past the porch where I hang some of my hummingbird feeders. It was too fast and too tiny (I think) to be anything but a hummingbird. I put a feeder out - is it possible in western PA this early?

A: Probably not.

Q: Do any hummers remain in Central America during the spring/summer? We're travel to Costa Rica in April.

A: Yes, most Central American species do not migrate, and we never see them up here.

From: North Carolina

Q: Have a brother retired near Harkers Island on the outer banks of North Carolina, and am wondering about what % of their ruby hummer population stays in area all winter long? I know they have small populations all winter there but it would seem that some do leave while a certain population remain. I live bout 40 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C. off I85 in Shelby. ole zummer nut lewbar

A: I can't answer that, but Susan Campbell might. See more information on NC hummers from North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences site.

From: Georgia

Q: How many times, if ever, have you encountered the same hummingbird at one location, year after year? Is that common?

A: I see some every year in my banding studies, up to six years in a row. It's common, but it's hard to prove unless the bird is banded.

Q: I know hummers remember me that return to my yard each year. Do they remember each other as well? I have 2 males just returned and sit on the same tree a ft apart looking at each other and share a feeder even when there are only 4 birds back in the yard and 5 feeders up. I ordered a remote for my camera so I can catch this activity. Are you interested to see pics or film of this?

A: Little is known about that part of hummingbird behavior, but your pair may be siblings.

Q: Do dragonflies and other birds, such as blue jays, eat hummingbirds? I only feed hummers in my yard and let my neighbors feed the other species. What other birds feed on hummers if any?

A: Hawks, owls, jays, crows, roadrunners, shrikes, orioles, large flycatchers; also Chinese mantises and possibly large dragonflies.

Q: Is it better to make my sugar water sweeter when my birds first return and right before they migrate? Also I keep telling my family and neighbors please don't put food coloring in the water or honey would you please explain why so I can print this and stop begging them not to.

A: Just use 1:4 all the time. See my website for more on red dye.

From: Michigan

Q: Why do I get so many hummingbirds at my house? I live in central Michigan and I always have about 25 hummingbirds that feed at my home. Closer to fall I get about 50. None of my neighbors get so many (under 10). I have no particular plants or flowers to attract them. Everybody keeps feeders out around here (Of necessity, I keep 5 or 6, fill once a day or more). We live in deep woods on couple acre lots. I've never found nests and they fly in from all directions. Some days you can hardly go to the backyard for all the hummers.

A: There are a few possible reasons: you've been feeding longer, your woods are better, your feeders are fresher, you're smarter and better looking than your neighbors.

Q: I have a female "ruby" hummer, that comes to my feeder every year. But I do not see her until late July early Aug? Why is this and it's always just her. When I see her I keep saying to bring her "man" around. My feeder goes out around April 10th. I change the food every 2-4 days. My wife wants me to just give up. The road we live on is not busy and we have trees all around us. I do have plants that hummers like and have red flowers in flower boxes. So is there anything I can do to get her to come around sooner and have her mate to come too?

A: Hummingbirds don't form pairs, and the males start migrating south in early July. You are probably seeing a succession of southbound females and immatures of both sexes, passing through on their way south, different birds each day. If you see no hummers before late July, your habitat is not appropriate for nesting.

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