Nectar is described in the dictionary as “the saccharine secretion of a plant, which attracts the insects or birds that pollinate the flower”. There is also the ‘nectar of the gods’ which comes from Greek mythology. It means a “life giving drink of the fickle gods”. For hummingbirds, we are those gods.
Each May we await the arrival of these beautiful, tiny birds that have flown thousands of miles from Central America to reach our northern forests. The mere fact that such a minute creature could actually fly that distance is awe inspiring. Over the years, we have kept track of their return dates and it generally has fallen close to Mother’s Day, so even if we haven’t seen one, we will hang up the hummingbird feeder, filled with sugar water in anticipation of their arrival.
First the male arrives; he of the brilliant green back and iridescent red throat patch. A bit later, the less flamboyant, but still beautiful female will arrive. We can begin the summer with just one or two of the feeders, but by August, we need to increase that number to three or four to accommodate the fledglings that join their parents in the feeding frenzy. In a good summer we have counted as many as eight frantic little flyers in competition for a place at one of the two feeders. It is better to have a number of smaller feeders like the Droll Yankee Little Flyer 4 scattered around the yard so that there is less competition, but you may find that they prefer one over the others.
Hummingbirds have different rates of metabolism – one is very high and fast and is necessary for hovering as they forage for nectar. The other is for migration. When they ingest sugar they synthesize the fatty acids and convert them to fat. While foraging they use up the glycogen reserves in their flight muscles and liver. Those reserves are only enough for five minutes, so in order to not deplete their critical fat reserves they must continually resupply their body with the nectar (or sugar water).
Nature provides the most balanced nutrition for hummingbirds in the form of nectar. But nectar is typically low in sugar. That’s why our feeders should contain no more than a 20% sucrose solution (1 part sugar to 4 parts water). Higher concentrations don’t necessarily benefit them and too concentrated a solution can’t easily travel up the grooves in their fiber thin tongue.
Hummingbirds apparently run their own version of a ‘trap-line’ each day, following a predictable sequence of flowers and feeders. That may explain why we have our heaviest visitation around dinner time. We went away for a couple days a week ago and when we returned, we feared we’d lost ‘our’ hummers to a neighbor’s feeder. She noticed a sudden increase in their numbers the day after our feeders ran out. I begged her to send them back to us. A day or two later, they were back in full force, not because of her coaxing, but simply because they had followed their route and found the artificial ‘flowers’ full of nectar once again.
If you love hummingbirds, plant as many nectar-producing flowers, vines, shrubs and trees as possible. If you are without a yard, even a window box can help. It is estimated that a hummer can feed on as many as 1500 flowers a day, which tells you how little nectar there is in each flower. Flowers with long tubular shapes are their favorites and their long tongue is perfectly designed to extracting the nectar down at the bottom. Trumpet honeysuckle, bee balm and salvia offer significantly more nectar than cultivated hybrids. And native flowers will also be better since they have evolved with the climate and the hummingbirds. But it’s not just the hummingbird that benefits from this exchange. In the process, they collect pollen on their feathers and help spread the gene pool of the flower they’re visiting.
Whether they are flying to your feeders or your flowers, having hummingbirds nearby will provide you with endless satisfaction and entertainment.
By Kate Crowley