Master Naturalists: Late freezes stress spring migration hummers

By Paul and Mary Meredith
April 10, 2014 at midnight
Updated April 9, 2014 at 11:10 p.m.

Spring migration of hummingbirds is in full swing across North America. Victorians in the hummers' eastern flyway saw their first migrating ruby-throated hummers about mid-March.

By April 2, they were seen for the first time in southern Illinois and in coastal Virginia. Before they are through and bedding down in breeding sites, some will reach New Brunswick, ranging west into central Canada. Males arrive first to claim territories before the females get there.

Days ago, while visiting our daughter, son-in-law and new grandchild in San Jose, Calif., we saw an Anna's hummer, the most common of the western hummingbird species, browsing the local rhododendron blooms. Yes, we bought and put out two feeders for them.

Feeders are also important in Victoria, especially this spring. The freeze - 28 degrees for seven hours March 3 and 4 with northerly winds about 20 mph - really hurt the earliest-developing flowering plants here.

Flowers are usually a prime source of nectar for migrating birds, which burn off one-fourth of their body weight coming 600 miles across the Gulf from the Yucatan. Our traditional early-blooming natives, like coral bean and sages, were frozen back to their stems and are just now putting out new growth.

With a long way still to go, rubys need to gain weight by consuming large amounts of high-energy nectar. If you kept feeders out all winter, you may want to add a few more now to service migrants. If you didn't keep feeders out all winter, get out your feeders, make sure they are clean and make a new batch of sugar water.

Remember the formula: 1 part plain white sugar to 4 parts hot water, stir till dissolved or microwave for a minute or so. Cool the feed, fill feeders and hang outside. Do not waste time or money purchasing colored water or adding food color; it does no good.

Repeat this process, refilling feeders at least every four to five days, closer to three in hot weather. Keep your feeders free of mold; an old toothbrush and a baby bottle brush do wonders.

Toss cloudy feed; it is either moldy or fermenting, and both are bad. Never fed hummers before? Pick up a couple of feeders; they are readily available in large grocery stores and nurseries, among others. Wash them well before filling the first time.

Feeders do not need to be fancy aesthetically. Focus on hummers; they need to be able to get fresh, clean sugar water from easy-to-clean feeders. We learned a trick from a group of serious bird enthusiasts in San Jose.

Whether you are hanging a feeder for the first time or you are a seasoned hummer-helper, tape one end of a 12-inch-long piece of red plastic tape or ribbon to the bottom of each of your feeders.

Migrating hummers are sight hunters. A moving ribbon may help them find a new food source. Once hummers find the feeder, you can remove the ribbon. We don't know of any scientific evidence proving this works. We tried it anyway; it seems to help.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at



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