HARRISBURG, PA — In the coming days and weeks, some exotic travelers will be pouring into Pennsylvania, invading our communities and speeding around farm country.
But they carry no epidemiological surprises and their presence is welcomed. They make almost every homeowner a little more comfortable, even under our current stay-at-home mandate.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are one of Pennsylvania’s surest signs that spring is upon us. Their typical annual arrival is right around May 1. But in early springs, like this year’s, there are always a few brave souls that plunge north over the Mason-Dixon well before other more-cautious neotropical birds settle into Penn’s Woods.
Given the hummingbird’s size, and its inability to store energy, it’s risky behavior. And sometimes, cold fronts chase them south some. But more often than not, they stick it out. If you have a hummingbird feeder out the late April and early May, you’ll see it firsthand.
The hummingbird’s arrival is tied to the availability of food: flower nectar, small insects and, of course, what many of them depend upon most, artificial feeders. And they generally have a good feel for when they can return to Penn’s Woods. Life is a great teacher.
“A lot of hummingbirds return and immediately look for the feeder that they used in the past,” noted Joe Kosack, a Game Commission education specialist. “Typically, they’re the males that will try to take over the feeder, terrorizing other males that approach it. Females, however, are welcomed company.”
Hummingbirds nest in Pennsylvania every spring. It’s mainly why they come.
If you’re trying to time their arrival, you can keep track of hummingbird migrations in North America is checking the hummingbird migration map at HummingbirdCentral.com. Pennsylvania is home to ruby-throated hummingbirds. There are occasionally other species of hummers that come, mostly in fall, but they’re an exception to the rule.
Having a feeder out earlier than others is one of the best ways to pull in early-birds. But if you want to keep them, make sure you offer some natural sources of food. There are a large variety of ornamental plants that will attract hummers. They include: coralbells, salvia, trumpeter vine, honeysuckle or other plants that offer tubular flowers. The birds also are fond of mimosa, but the invasive tree/shrub can be tough on native species.
Feeders have become very popular, because they’re inexpensive, readily accessible and a decorative way to dress up the porch. Once they attract birds, the hummers provide countless hours of entertainment and serve as great conversation starters.
Buy a feeder with red components, if you don’t have flowers in your beds that will attract hummingbirds. If it fails to attract birds, move it near a bed with flowers already pulling in hummers. Once they start using the feeder, slowly move it back toward where you’d prefer to have it. Normally they’ll follow, unless there are other nearby feeders, or flower beds.
Feeders should be filled with a solution that is one part granulated sugar and four parts water. To make it, heat measured cups of water, add the required sugar and let the mixture cool before filling your feeder reservoir. Fill it over the kitchen sink to avoid spilling sugar water in your home or on your porch; the homemade concoction will draw black ants.
Store any unused feed mixture in the refrigerator until it’s needed. Commercial feed mixtures also are available, but making homemade nectar is far cheaper and doesn’t include red dye.
There’s a lot of disagreement about whether red dye is harmful to hummers. So err on the side of caution. Besides, hummers usually come to almost any feeder offering fresh sugar water.
If you hang a feeder, please recognize the responsibility that comes with its use. Your feeder should be cleaned at least once a week, using hot water, dishwashing liquid, a dishrag and bottlebrush. Then rinse the components and let them air-dry.
Although feeders can be placed almost anywhere, when they’re hung in shaded locations, with nearby trees that provide perches for hummers to watch over the feeder, they tend to provide more action. If a location doesn’t work, move it until you find one that does.
These feeders have proven themselves over the years. If there are hummingbirds around, they will find them. But so might other animals. Ants, bees and wasps probably bother hummer feeders more than other animals. But raccoons and black bears also can be drawn to them.
“One of my more interesting finds was coming back home after a weekend trip and finding a swarm of honeybees all over the feeder,” Kosack noted. “They simply were too much for the hummingbirds to challenge.
“We also have a downy woodpecker that has taken to lapping up sugar water from the ports of our feeder over the past two years. He isn’t well received by the hummingbirds, but my family and I have no objections.”
Statewide, it’s unlawful to intentionally feed bears. If one is coming to your feeder, take your feeder down.
If ants are bothering your feeder, spray insecticide on the approaches to and around the feeder’s hanger. Remove the feeder while doing this. Smear petroleum jelly on the string or wire suspending the feeder to make it tougher on ants.
Some homeowners try to dominate their neighborhood’s hummingbirds by hanging several – up to a half dozen – feeders. And even though hummers will tolerate such arrangements, it doesn’t mean they’ll all stay there.
Males prefer their own territory and feeding locations. So, if you have flower beds and a feeder with fresh sugar water, hummers will come, particularly after the first broods of the year fledge.
So, get your feeder out early, plant hummingbird-friendly flowers and have the patience to wait for them to come. Rest assured, they will!
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