Q & A with Matthew Reetz, PhD. – Executive Director, Madison Audubon Society
What’s so special about hummingbirds? They are a species unlike any other. The name hummingbird stems from their ability to flap their wings up to 80 times per second which creates the “humming” sound. Hummingbirds are brightly colored and they’re attracted to red and other bright colors because they’ve learned to associate tasty nectar with red flowers. While they do snack on insects and pollen, nectar makes up 90 percent of a hummingbird’s diet. These quick-twitched creatures dine every 10-15 minutes or so, racing from flower to flower on a mission to sustain their unusually high metabolisms.
When you set your sights on a fluttering hummingbird, there’s no mistaking the rush of excitement you feel. Hummingbirds are incredibly unique birds that bring about child-like joy if you’re lucky enough to get a glance before they’re gone. While they aren’t the easiest birds to attract, there are a handful of proven measures you can take to attract hummingbirds to your yard. You’re going to need the proper hummingbird feeder, hummingbird food and environment to keep the super-cool birds coming back. What better time than late summer and early fall to establish a hummingbird haven?
- What are some things to consider when placing your hummingbird feeder in your yard?The most important consideration is the safety of the birds. Feeders should be hung at least 4 feet above the ground and away from large perches to stay out of reach of outdoor cats and other potential predators. They should also not be placed near dense foliage, which makes them more difficult to discover and also harder for the birds to use as they hover about. A good balance is somewhere between 10-12 feet from cover of shrubs or small deciduous trees. Furthermore, because nectar can ferment when in direct sunlight for much of the day, partially shaded or dappled sunlight areas are best for feeder placement.Finally, you should also consider placement that benefits you! First, it should be in a place that is convenient for you to reach for cleaning and nectar refilling. And of course, consider your own view of the feeder so that you may enjoy the hummingbirds as they feed. Having a hummingbird feeder close to a window in your home actually reduces the possibility of window strike fatalities.
- Does a Midwestern bird watcher have a better chance of seeing a certain type of hummingbird than others?The Midwest’s most common hummingbird species, by far, is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the only one that regularly breeds in the region. There are other hummingbird species that periodically show up in the Midwest including Black-chinned, Rufous, Anna’s, and Broad-billed but they are rarities. We are very lucky to enjoy Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the Midwest. If you are fortunate enough to attract a Ruby-throat to your yard, you will be amazed by flashes of iridescent green and red at it zooms about bating its wings 53 times per second!
- Why are hummingbirds so territorial when they feed? Should you place your feeders accordingly?Because they are birds! Pretty much all birds are territorial, especially during the summer months when breeding is occurring. Also, hummingbirds have incredibly fast metabolisms and process their food very quickly. So if a hummingbird has located a reliable and energy-rich food source, it’s definitely worth competing with its neighbor to keep it. Having multiple hummingbird feeders spread around your yard can help reduce some of the territorial interactions among the hummingbirds. They should be spread far enough that the hummingbirds won’t easily see or interact with one another.
- Does supplementing a hummingbird feeder with plants containing nectar increase the chances of attracting hummingbirds?Placing feeders with nectar-producing plants can certainly help attract hummingbirds. First, you can hang your feeders near a potted nectar-producing plant, especially one that has red or orange flowers. This does two things. First, it provides a broader food source for the hummingbird. Second, because hummingbirds see in the ultraviolet spectrum, the red or orange flowers act as a great visual attractant. But if you really want to create a hummingbird haven, you should consider placing feeders in a yard that has lots of hummingbird habitat too. Placing feeders in an area with a diversity of flowers, shrubs and trees that produce nectar provides places for them to feed, roost, hide, nest, and raise young. The best plants, flowering or not, are species that are native to the region because they not only provide lots of nectar, but a diversity of insects for the hummingbirds to eat. Insects are especially important for feeding hungry hummingbird nestlings.
- Can you set up other types of bird feeders near a hummingbird feeder?Absolutely! But, your other feeding stations need to be placed away from your hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds will avoid areas with larger birds so make sure your feeders are spread apart and well-maintained. For example, make sure you are cleaning your hummingbird feeders often, every 4-5 days. Remove all unused nectar before cleaning and refilling with fresh food. Never use nectar with red dye as it may contain chemicals harmful to the birds. You might also consider creating a water source as a type of feeder. Hummingbirds bathe often and are attracted to water, especially a mist-type water feature.
Prepared by Matthew Reetz, PhD.
Executive Director, Madison Audubon Society