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BIRDWISE: Hummingbirds: Feeders and fun facts

Our local hummingbird, the ruby-throat, is the only species of hummingbird east of the Rockies.

This is the time to expect a big increase of ruby-throated hummingbirds attending your nectar feeders.

Like seed-eating species, hummingbirds also switch to insect-feeding when feeding their young. By now the young are out of the nest and beginning to show up at your feeders and flowering plants in numbers, ready for doses of nectar. They will increase through August and taper off quickly toward the end of the month, as they wing their way south to Mexico for the winter.

Here is some advice on feeding these delicate species: Use a mixture of 1 cup sugar to 3 cups water. This concentration retards the establishment of bacteria that can be harmful to the birds. Don't add food color to your mixture. The birds will already be attracted to the red color on the feeders and don't need artificial ingredients that may be harmful.

Watch your feeders daily and replace the mixture as soon as it becomes cloudy, indicating bacterial contamination. When this happens, clean out the feeders thoroughly — contaminated nectar can kill these birds. Contamination can happen quickly in hot, humid times.

In cooler periods, the mixture may retain its freshness for many days. Watch the feeders carefully and act as needed. The best feeders are those that have a little moat in the center that prevents ants from entering from the hanger when the moat is filled with water. My experience recently in local stores is that these feeders can be hard to find. Ask your local outlets about getting them or check them out online. Once ants get into the nectar, contamination follows readily.

Our local hummingbird, the ruby-throat, is the only species of hummingbird east of the Rockies. In the Rockies and west, 14 other species occur regularly. The remaining 300 or so members of the hummingbird family are distributed widely through Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean in almost all habitats — from low desert to alpine, with the majority in tropical jungles.

Hummingbirds are unique to the Western Hemisphere — nothing quite like them exists anywhere else.

They are the only birds capable of flying backwards or vertically while in a horizontal position. Think about that when you watch them at your feeders. It is truly an extraordinary capability! Their mating displays can be extremely elaborate. Watch the male ruby-throat for its repeated, swooping, up-and-down flight in a U-pattern and, when a female is sitting in a low bush, its rapid, darting side-to-side flight in front of her. These behaviors are still happening here, perhaps by adult males seeking a second nesting or perhaps by young birds practicing for next year when their displays will be for real.

PBS has had some wonderful specials on these birds that show their brilliant plumage and feature some extraordinary displays. Look for them if they are repeated — they are terrific.