Wednesday, September 5, 2012


When we take our meals on the screened in porch, I frequently hear a small “vrooom, vrooom, vrooom” behind me. That is where the hummingbird feeder hangs. The sound (something like a very fast 4-inch helicopter) is of one ruby-throated hummingbird defending its territory from the invasion of another that has taken interest in the feeder.
The hummer sits on the tip of a branch of the nearby plum tree, or sometimes at the much, much higher tip of a branch on a walnut tree and guards the feeder. It rarely stops to drink, but instead expends its energy “protecting” its food source. We’ve tried telling it that the feeder has plenty for all, but to no avail.

This behavior is typical of the unsocial ruby-throated hummingbird (and of other but not all hummingbird species, I presume). Both males and females defend territories, with some supposedly rotating use and defense of feeding sites.

Males and females do not even tolerate each other, except for the few brief moments of mating. The female builds the nest, weaving it together with spider webs, and raises the young on her own, while the male mates with as many females as possible.

Lady in Red Salvia

We usually don’t hang hummingbird feeders, but this year, the heat and drought has seriously reduced the blooms in the garden and wild. Right now, the hummers are fattening up for their migratory trek, a nonstop flight of hundreds of miles to Florida, or Central America, perhaps even South America. So they need some extra sustenance.

The ruby-throat is not the only hummingbird species in Kansas, but it is the one I see, possibly exclusively. Other Kansas species seen every year include the rufous, broad-billed, black-chinned, Anna’s and magnificent. Four rare species that have been seen in the state are Calliope, broad-tailed, Allen’s and Costa’s. And just for good measure, here is a link to a site with several photos of several of these species.

I have attempted to plant flowers near our summer dining area that will attract hummingbirds (as well as butterflies and bees). The flowers they are drinking from now are the annual Lady in Red Salvia, four-o’ clocks, and Madagascar periwinkle. Earlier in the summer they dined on Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) and the bright orange blooms of the dwarf pomegranate growing in a large pot on the front porch.
Red Madagascar Periwinkle

While they prefer red blossoms, I also have seen hummingbirds feeding from the purple blossoms of garden sage, as well as the blossoms of pole beans, long beans and black-eye peas.

Tubular flowers best fit their long, thin beaks, so such things as cardinal flower, trumpet vine, honeysuckle, bee balm, morning glory, columbine, salvia and jewel weed are great food sources. This, of course is not a complete list. When the situation is tough, they will drink from any nectar source they can get their beaks into. I’ve even seen one going after the blooms of rugosa rose. I am not sure what wild flower species provide them with food, perhaps the blue sage now blooming in our small meadow area. Or milkweeds? I can’t think of any red wildflowers here.

Royal Catchfly
Fortunately, hummingbirds do not rely solely on nectar. They also eat insects. Which provides protein.

Hummingbird feeders must be cleaned frequently, to prevent the sugar solution from getting nasty and sickening for the birds. Red food coloring often is added to the solution, but is not necessary and can even be harmful. As long as the feeder is red, the hummers will get the idea.

According to an Audubon Web site, you should continue feeding until you have not seen a hummer at the feeder for several days. As the local population moves on, the migrators from other regions will pass through and use the feeder. They don’t hang around just because food is available. They may be bird brains, but they aren’t stupid.

White Madagascar Periwinkle


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