The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 2, Chapter 10: Meet the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds

Dear Wood Folk,

There are many species of hummingbirds in the world, but here in Haliburton county there’s just one: the ruby-throated hummingbird. Only the males have the “ruby throat”, which in low light appears black or rusty.

Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

All sorts of folks put out hummingbird feeders here come end of May and bring them back inside in come September. It’s trendy. Thankfully, some hummingbird awareness articles and memes about the importance of keeping the feeders clean, using the proper recipe with only white sugar and no dye, and even invasive burdock flowers trapping hummingbirds (a problem I’ve witnessed myself) have made the rounds too. But did you know they eat bugs? Especially the young ones who need more protein to grow than just nectar and pollen can give.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Plant Allies

You can find hummingbirds about everywhere, but they especially like clearings full of nectar producing plants. Coming back and forth every winter and spring they’ll pause in open areas with such flowers.

I often see males perched atop the highest spot on a dead tree. They’ll perch on dead branches too. They like to keep watch. To chase off other hummingbirds I assume. Besides mating with the female, grown hummingbirds are solitary and fiercely territorial.

The females typically build a tiny nest on a branch. Oak and ironwood/hop hornbeam are favorite spots, but they’ll also nest in the likes of beech, birch, maple, pine and spruce. Occasionally, she’ll pick a chain, wire, etc. in lieu of a branch. She usually builds 10-20 feet up, but may go much higher or much lower.

The mini cup of a nest is made of plant fibers stuck together with spider silk. She lines it with fluffy plant down. And also camos the outside with bark, dead leaves, lichen and mosses that make it look like a natural knob in the branch. It’s hard to spot hummingbird nests, and that’s a reason to avoid pruning branches in late spring and early summer. The “leaf awning/umbrella” pictures that have gone viral are legit too. (Someday someone will photograph a hummingbird bathing in water collected on a large leaf and that’ll go viral too!)

Within two weeks of laying a couple plump pea sized eggs, the little honeybee sized chicks hatch. They’ll mostly be raised on insects, but soon their favorite food will be nectar from tubular flowers, especially from red, orange and purple flowers. Some of their favorites include bee-balm (monarda spp.), cardinal flower and red columbine. Many more are listed below under How to Attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

They also drink leftover sap from yellow-bellied sapsucker holes in trees like maple. If food is sparse in early spring, like bees they may feed from willow (salix spp.) catkins. Red elder is another early bloomer for early hummingbirds. Some folks suggest it’s best to put a nectar feeder out early and late in hummingbird season, forgoing using the feeder when natural food sources are plentiful.

How to Attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are easy to attract. Red and orange decorations will even catch their attention. Nectar feeders and native tubular shaped red, orange and purple plants make a certain visit. The later being especially important.

You’ve probably heard it countless times, but we must keep our hummingbird feeders clean. You can get away with every 2 weeks for normal bird feeders with seed. But the hummingbird feeder should probably be washed with every change, or for sure at least weekly! You also have to make sure you only use white sugar, boiling 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, and check that it stays clear. It can go sour quickly in the hot sun and may need changed every other day in the heat of summer. It’s far too easy for fungus or bacteria to develop and kill the hummingbirds. Indeed, feeding hummingbirds is a bit of a commitment. So much so some discourage even doing it.

Our hummingbirds arrive around May and usually leave come September, but for those choosing to put our nectar feeders, recent recommendations are to keep the feeder out a little bit longer. It won’t make them stay, which is an old wives tale, but it could help injured birds and those lagging behind for whatever reason to recover and fuel up to head south. (fyi Their winter range has been changing.)

If feeder maintenance is a bit much, an easier hands off approach would be to simply plant the native flowers they love. Possibilities include blue lobelia, cardinal flower, dense blazing star, giant hyssop, jewelweed, native lilies (lilium spp.), milkweeds, northern blue flag iris, northern bush honeysuckle, obedient plant, pasture thistle, phlox, purple coneflower, wild red columbine, red elder, turtlehead, wild bergamot, and even though it’s an escape from cultivation, scarlet bee balm is easy to grow too! Scarlet runner beans are also an option for late season flowers.

With some planning you can have a continuous nectar-full blooming schedule. In the future I’ll be releasing hummingbird landscaping plans specific to zone 4 and central Ontario – be sure to follow us and turn on notifications to not miss it, if you’re interested.

Other tips include avoiding the use of pesticides in your yard (which can kill the hummingbirds as well as the insects!) and landscaping with flat topped, insect magnet plants like yarrow or flowering dogwoods. And don’t forget to leave those dead trees and branches for perching spots. Hummingbirds like a water source too. And as always, be careful about where you put your feeders if there are feral cats or housecats roaming around.

The next two 17ths we’ll be meeting some sparrows and flycatchers. Both sets of birds include species notoriously hard to tell apart. I’ve been wrong many times! We’ll practice together. Happy summer, folks!

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