Sunday, May 21, 2006

hummingbird feeder : Native Delaware: Returning hummingbirds

Do you have your hummingbird feeder up yet? Even though the hummingbirds don't arrive in Delaware until late spring, now is the ideal time to hang up your feeder, according to Dr. Greg Shriver, UD assistant professor of wildlife ecology.

"You want to get the feeder up in advance of the birds' arrival so that yours is the first feeding site they find on their return north, thus increasing the chances that they will take up residence in your yard for the summer," Shriver says.

Warmer states, like Texas and Arizona, enjoy more than a dozen species of hummingbirds, many of which stay year-round. Delaware attracts just one type of hummingbird -- the ruby-throated (Archilochus colubris). And its tenure here is short; it only stays through September, says Shriver. At the first sign of cool weather, it wings its way back to southern Mexico and northern Panama.

few males more easily than the precious egg-laying females. By the time the females travel, there are better and more-developed flowers en route. In autumn, the males continue the pattern by departing about three weeks earlier. This may leave a richer diet for the developing young who stay on with the females, Shriver says.

It's easy to distinguish the male from the female. Both the male and female ruby-throated have a brilliant green back and white chest, but only the male has a red throat. Male juveniles also have yet to develop the distinctive red throat.

The reason many of us go to the trouble of hanging -- and maintaining -- a hummingbird feeder is to see these winged versions of Speedy Gonzales in flight. While just cruising around, the ruby-throated species flies at about 30 mph. However, when escaping a predator, they can zoom up to 50 mph. And in the midst of a dive, they've been clocked at up to 63 mph.

How can be it possible to go so fast? "By flapping your wings like crazy," says Shriver.

Hummingbirds get their name from the buzzing sound that their wings make as they beat in flight. The speed of the wings varies by species. The fastest, the amethyst woodstar, has a wingbeat rate of 80 per second. But the ruby-throated is no slouch, either, with a wingbeat rate of about 53 per second during normal flight, says Shriver.

Just as fascinating as the hummingbird's speed is its ability to stop in mid-air and hover like a helicopter. Plus, they're the only birds who are able to fly in reverse, says Shriver.

As for those 60-mph nose dives, these flying feats are a way that males show off in front of females. They start by soaring in the air, plunging to the ground, and then, just before they hit the dirt, arcing upward again. This flight pattern is a way not only to attract females, but to ward off other males and defend nesting and feeding territories, Shriver says.

If you choose to hang a hummingbird feeder this spring, be prepared for a little bit of upkeep. Feeder syrup should be replaced on a weekly basis. And at least once a month, Shriver says you should clean your feeder with a solution of 1ΒΌ8 cup bleach to one gallon of water. But it's worth the hassle, as you'll get to enjoy the company of these captivating fliers all summer long.

Native Delaware is a weekly column by the university's Cooperative Extension on First State plants, animals and weather. Contact Susan Baldwin at 831-1355 or; or McDonough at 831-1358 or


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