Ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning. Are you ready?

Photo by Katy Jefferson • A male ruby-throated hummingbird visits a sugar water feeder for a quick refuel.

The website Journey North noted on March 15 that ruby-throated hummingbird migration was off to a slow start for spring 2022.  According to the website, Journey North volunteers along the Gulf Coast and in the Southeast are noting new arrivals, but the total number of reports is lower than at this same time last year.

On a posting made on March 22, Journey North indicated that the pace had quickened. After a slow start, according to the website, ruby-throated hummingbird migration is picking up in the Southeastern United States.

According to the website, most first spring observations of hummingbirds are males, although a few females are being spotted. Male hummingbirds, the posting noted, arrive first so they can find and defend a territory.

The first migration reports of ruby-throated hummingbirds began as a trickle in early March from along the Gulf Coast. Observers in states such as Texas and Louisiana reported ruby-throated hummingbirds as early as March 1.

The website made note that spring migration is a challenging time for hummingbirds. Temperature, wind patterns and storms can influence the pace of migration.

Even once these tiny birds make their epic spring crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, they will need time to rest and refuel before moving northward. By mid-March, the advance of ruby-throated hummingbirds had reached states such as Georgia and South Carolina. By the end of March, the first reports began to arrive at Journey North from Tennessee and North Carolina. (There’s already been a local sighting, but that will come with next week’s column.)

Now that the ruby-throated hummingbirds have officially returned to the Volunteer State and its neighbors, it’s time to put out those sugar water feeders. Consider planting some colorful native flowers to provide nectar sources for hummingbirds.

Northeast Tennessee usually gets its first spring hummingbirds the first week of April. If you’re seeing hummingbirds, I’d love to know. I have tracked arrivals for several years now. To share your first spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or contact me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Please include the date and time of your sighting.

In the meantime, take steps now to welcome hummingbirds back and keep them safe during their stay.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a small amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but they usually begin returning each spring in early April in Northeast Tennessee and the surrounding region.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and minerals valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

Most experts also suggest avoiding red dyes, which are often found in commercially marketed hummingbird sugar water. Don’t risk the health of hummingbirds for a little convenience.

It’s easy to make your own sugar water mix, which can be stored in the refrigerator in an empty plastic juice jug. Boil some water and then add one cup of sugar for every four cups of water in your pot. Stir thoroughly. Bottle the mixture until it cools. Fill your feeders and store any remaining sugar water in the fridge in the aforementioned jug. Refrigerated, the mix should stay good to use for at least a week.

In our milder spring weather, changing the sugar water in feeders can probably be done on a weekly basis. When hotter summer temperatures prevail, it’s usually necessary to change the sugar water every two or three days.

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