Backyard Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds, those fascinating little green birds that hover like helicopters and occasionally fly back-ward, usually cross the Mason-Dixon Line shortly after spring flowers bloom. And if your yard is prepared to receive them, ruby-throated hummingbirds may set up shop in your yard and entertain you from early May into September.

Each spring, ruby-throated hummingbirds — the only hummingbird that have bred historically east of the Mississippi River — move northward from their winter range in Central and South America. On the way, they fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico — at least 500 miles — and zip and dart from one flower garden to the next on their journey to breeding areas throughout the eastern United States and Canada. The birds begin to move into Pennsylvania in late April and early May. You can track and even help report on their migrations on the web.

As hummingbirds trickle into our state (they don't migrate in groups), some head for familiar haunts while others, especially yearlings, look for back-yards they can stake out as their own. Yards, parks or gardens with plenty of edge habitat and spring-blooming flowers tend to have the best chance of attracting these migrants as summertime settlers. A hummingbird feeder also can increase a back-yard's appeal.

Plants that are hummingbird magnets include: bee balm, cardinal flower. trumpet vine, trumpet (coral) honeysuckle, penstemon, salvia, hardy hi-biscus, native columbine, jewelweed (touch-me-not) and black locust.

A hummingbird, capable of moving up to 60 miles per hour, epitomizes perpetual motion. It seems always on the go. Even when it feeds, it frequently does so while winging it.

When flying, the hummingbird's body works like a high-precision racing car motor pushed to the limit.

The hummer's heart pulsates more than 600 times a minute; its wings beat about 75 beats per second. The bird represents some of na-ture's finest machinery. For this feathered whirlybird to keep itself aloft, it must constantly eat, because it rapidly burns what it consumes.

The principal food for hummers is nectar, a high-calorie, instant energy fuel. They lap this sugary liquid from the base of preferred flowers with their long, slender tongues. In addition, the birds pluck small insects and spiders from flowers. Another food source, of course, is hummingbird feeders.

Feeders have become very popular, because word has spread that hummingbirds aren't difficult to attract. The feeder should be filled with a solution containing one part granulated sugar and four parts wa-ter. Heat water, add sugar and let the mixture cool before filling your feeder reservoir. Store any unused feed mixture in the refrigerator until it's needed. Commercial feed mixtures also are available. Never use honey in your feeder; it ferments and birds could become ill from consuming it. Also, clean your feeder at least once a week; use dishwashing liquid, or a homemade cleaner that is one part vinegar, four parts water. With either, use a bottlebrush and rinse thoroughly.

Place the feeder in a somewhat shaded area near a flower bed by suspending it with string from a tree branch or homemade stand. Smear petroleum jelly on the string to keep ants from reaching the feeder. In addition, don't use food coloring in your feed mixture. Buy a feeder with red components. If it fails to attract birds move it, or place a few more in the yard.

Don't hang your feeder near an electric fence with wire attached to red or yellow post insulators. Hum-mers are attracted to the insulators and can be electrocuted if they touch the charged fence and metal fence post simultaneously. Consequently, people with fenced pastures and fields are encouraged to avoid using red and yellow fence post insulators. If your fence already contains them, the problem can be eliminated by spraying them with flat black paint.

Your feeder should be cleaned at least once a week to ensure it doesn't become a breeding ground for fungus that could cause infection in birds. Wash in hot water and dish-washing liquid, wiping all surface areas and thoroughly rinsing. Wash it like you would dishes or silverware.

Be sure to keep an eye on your feeder. Once birds begin using it, they can drain it quickly. When active, hummingbirds feed at least every 10 to 15 minutes. When they start using your feeder, move it a little bit each day toward the area you'd like to observe them from, if it isn't already there. Avoid initially placing it in a place where there's too much activity.

Although hummingbirds take their name from the noise created by their fast-moving wings, they could double in a millisecond as chittering green goblins. Male hummers stake out their feeding areas and chase, bluff or harpoon other males entering their domain. Females, on the other hand, are permitted to trespass at will. On occasion, an adult female will stake out a feeder and repeal young males and young-of-the-year. Although you may frequently see fights at or near your feeder, rest assured the birds rarely hurt one another, even when they collide in mid-air and grapple in a feather-flying free-fall to the ground.

Once hummers set up shop in your yard, they'll probably nest there. Females, the dull colored ones, primarily build their half-dollar-sized nests, constructed with soft plant fibers and spider web, among the twigs or branches of deciduous trees. Nests are often camouflaged with lichens. The two white, pea-sized eggs laid in the nest hatch after about two weeks of incubation. The hatchlings are under their mother's care for about 25 days; then the young birds are on their own.

August usually is your feeder's busiest time. Hummers — as a result of reproduction — are in their greatest numbers over Pennsylvania's landscape. Your feeder can become an airport un-der the right conditions — particularly in droughts — as the hummers compete for limited feeding sites. As a result, they can drain a filled feeder almost daily. So keep an eye on the contents, because hummers will jump ship quickly if you can't meet their demands.

As flowers begin to fade in the fall, hummingbirds start their journey south. They eventually hole up in Florida until they've built up a substantial supply of fat to fuel their journey back across the Gulf of Mexico to their winter range.

Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797