Last year on April 24, I wrote that ruby-throated hummingbirds were back early. This year they are setting records for returning early. One of my favorite websites, www.hummingbirds.net (maintained by Lanny Chambers), follows hummers' northward journey on the map that's updated daily. Anyone can report their first hummers, and then all can monitor the northbound migration.
The first report this year came from coastal Alabama on Feb. 25. That date is not unusual. Last year the first migratory ruby-throats arrived on the Mississippi coast on Feb. 23. Since 1998, as many as 13 ruby-throats have been reported from the Gulf Coast in February.
What is remarkable this year is how quickly the hummers are moving north. As of March 22, ruby-throats had been recorded in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and central Wisconsin. By the time you read this, there may be hummingbirds in your backyard.
I never look for hummingbirds before mid-April, but I put up one nectar feeder this week. Just in case.
But also remember that just because a hummingbird appears, that doesn't mean it will stay through late summer. It may just be stopping for a rest before heading farther north.
I suggest you hang a nectar feeder today. The nectar recipe is simple -- mix one part table sugar with four parts boiling water, cool and refrigerate. Do not use honey; it can harm or even kill hummers. Red dye is unnecessary because nectar feeders are red, and that's the color that catches hummers' attention. If you're offering nectar for the first time, enhance the feeder's conspicuousness by tying an 18-inch length of red ribbon to the feeder.
For now, a single feeder will suffice. Before nesting begins, hummer numbers at feeders can usually be counted on one hand. When young fledge in July, however, feeding stations attract females and their young from surrounding areas. From mid-July through August, some lucky feeding station operators report "clouds of hummingbirds."
The simplest way to get more hummingbirds is to put up more feeders. Serious hummingbird banders sometimes run dozens of feeders in midsummer to ensure they can capture and band many hummers.
Inevitably some readers ask if it's better to buy commercially prepared nectar. Powdered mixes are OK, but expensive compared to ordinary table sugar. Prepared nectars may advertise that they are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but hummingbirds satisfy their nutritional requirements from their natural foods. The nectar we provide is an energy supplement; their natural diet includes myriad soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, aphids, gnats, and fruit flies, as well flower nectar. Invertebrates provide the protein and nutrition that nectar lacks.
Other products that might tempt you are jugs of what appears to be pre-mixed nectar. Read the label. In big box stores, some of these products are merely colored water to which you must add sugar. Buyer beware.