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The Ruby-throated Hummingbird in New Brunswick
By Denis Doucet
Birdwatcher’s Nature Notes
A few helpful hummingbird feeding tips
In some ways, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Given that more than 99.99% of the hummingbird sightings in New Brunswick are of this species, if you see a hummingbird, it is almost certainly this species you are seeing. However, I should point out that over the course of the last two centuries in the Maritimes, there have been a few records (I stress a few…) of at least three other species of hummingbirds that have been positively identified and confirmed by experts, either with a specimen (live or dead) in hand or with a very good photographic record to back it up. These include two western species, namely the Rufous Hummingbird and the Black-chinned Hummingbird, but also a very unusual record a few years ago in Elgin, Albert County, New Brunswick of a southwestern US species, the Broad-billed Hummingbird. Given the Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s size (8-9 cm or 3.5 inches!), you are much more likely to confuse this bird with a large bumblebee, or perhaps one of the Hummingbird Clearwing moths, which actually bear a strong resemblance in flight to a hummingbird. This is perhaps an example of convergent evolution serving to protect it (the moth) from potential predators which believe it is a bee, and therefore can cause them pain if they (the predators) attempt to eat it…Another thing to remember is that while the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird has a metallic, ruby red throat under the right lighting conditions, it sometimes appears very dark or even black in subdued lighting. Also, the females and young look quite different from the adult males, and some people can mistake them for a different bird altogether.
Birdwatcher’s Nature Notes
It was once believed that a bird as small as the Ruby-throated Hummingbird was incapable of migrating under its own power across the wide expanse of the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan peninsula of Central America, which is the region where many individuals of this species are known to overwinter. This trip over water represents a distance of some 800 km. Given its size and the fact that it needs to feed every ten minutes or so under normal conditions during the daytime, this feat was thought to be impossible. For this reason, it was believed that this species actually migrated on the backs of Canada Geese (!). This perhaps a story that originated when a hunter shot a goose one fall and a hummingbird was inadvertently caught in the crossfire…Amazingly, we now know that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make this journey every fall without much trouble at all, without the help of the Canada Geese…
A few helpful hummingbird feeding tips:
If you attract and feed hummingbirds at home, either by planting hummer-friendly flowers (Bee Balm, Liatris, Impatiens, Trumpet Vine, Honeysuckle and many other species) and/or with a hummingbird feeder, it is time to put said feeder out again for the summer by the second week in May. You can take it down by the end of September, but I generally leave mine out till the end of October, just in case a stray hummer or oriole shows up in my yard during fall migration. Rest assured that leaving hummer feeders up later will not discourage hummers from migrating. It has been shown that the urge to migrate in all but the very most unusual circumstances far outweigh the desire for the bird to stay near a hummer feeder.
By the way, if you normally buy commercial hummingbird food but would like to try something different this year, you can also prepare your own, equally nourishing (and much cheaper) mixture by adding one part sugar to four parts water. You will need to heat the mixture until all the sugar dissolves. Remember to let your home-made hummer nectar cool down to room temperature before you put it in the feeder. By the way, it is not necessary or desirable to put red food colouring in the nectar, as the red found on most commercial feeders is sufficient to attract the hummers, and some types of food colouring have been shown to be harmful to hummingbirds. Contrary to what we might think also, honey is not an acceptable alternative to sugar for hummingbird nectar. Also, hummingbird nectar (even the commercial stuff) will spoil (ferment) outside in a week or less, especially in warm weather, so remember to change it, especially if it is not all gone, at least once a week. If you fail to do this, you may actually make the hummers ill with fermented nectar and they will not return to your feeders for a long time.
Clean the feeders weekly with soap and water to prevent mould. You may also use a dilute bleach (sodium hypochlorite) solution to clean and kill any mould in the feeder from time to time as well. If you do this, remember to rinse the feeder thoroughly a few times before refilling it then and hanging it back out. These few important tips will help you keep the hummers in your yard very happy, healthy and well-fed…
More interesting nature notes on hummers:
In this part of the country and others, hummingbirds actually arrive on their nesting grounds well before most of the plants they feed on are even in bloom. For this reason, sources of vital high-energy nectar can be in rather short supply at this time of year. One trick the hummers have developed to face this shortfall of food is to follow around another species of bird called the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This species of woodpecker arrives in our region just a few weeks before the hummers. It obtains an important proportion of its own nutritional requirements by drilling sap wells and then feeding on the sap that comes out (hence the name sapsucker). By the time the hummers arrive, the sapsuckers have begun in earnest staking out their nesting territories, calling and drumming loudly and drilling sap wells to feed on. Interestingly, hummers will quite frequently be seen following the sapsuckers around to find and drink sap, especially at this time of year when there is a paucity of nectar sources. Like the sapsuckers, the hummers feed on the sap flowing from the sap wells, particularly when the sapsuckers have moved on to a different tree…