Ruby-throated hummingbirds will soon be back. Their tiny size, acrobatic flying ability, and eagerness to use nectar feeders make hummingbirds one of America's favorite backyard birds. This fascination always triggers a flurry of mail, so let me anticipate the most common hummer questions I will get over the next month.
Q: How many species of hummingbirds live in the East?
A: Only the ruby-throated hummingbird nests regularly east of the Mississippi River. The female lacks the male's bright red throat, so some people mistakenly believe two species visit their feeders.
Q: When should I put up my hummingbird feeder?
A: My earliest record for hummers is April 22, but I put up a feeder on April 15, just in case. To track the ruby-throat's northward journey, visit http://www.hummingbirds.net/map.html. The first ruby-throats of the year arrived on U.S. soil on Feb. 20 in Louisiana. Last week, there were hummers reported as far north as Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Q: What's the recipe for nectar?
A: Add one part table sugar to four parts hot or boiling water. Hot water simply allows the sugar to dissolve faster. Stir, cool to room temperature, and store in the refrigerator. Red dye is unnecessary. And never use honey as a sweetener. Honey promotes a fungal disease that can kill hummers.
Q: How can hummingbirds survive if they just sip sugar water?
A: If they ate just sugar water, they would not survive. Sugar is nutritionally empty, but rich in calories. Hummers drink nectar for the calories -- the energy. They obtain nutrition by eating soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, flies, aphids, and gnats. Nectar probably makes up less than half their total diet.
Q: Is there a "best" nectar feeder?
A: Any red nectar feeder will catch the attention of hummingbirds, but it must be easy to clean. Rinse the feeder and change the nectar every three days, and wash it with hot soapy water once a week. Aspects and Droll Yankees are two manufacturers that make quality nectar feeders.