Hummingbirds are here early — here's how to help look after them

·5 min read
Dwaine Oakley shows off his favourite kind of hummingbird feeder, which has suction cups to affix it to a window and a moat to fill with water to deter unwanted insects.  (Nicole Murtagh - image credit)
Dwaine Oakley shows off his favourite kind of hummingbird feeder, which has suction cups to affix it to a window and a moat to fill with water to deter unwanted insects. (Nicole Murtagh - image credit)
Dwaine Oakley shows off his favourite kind of hummingbird feeder, which has suction cups to affix it to a window and a moat to fill with water to deter unwanted insects.
Dwaine Oakley shows off his favourite kind of hummingbird feeder, which has suction cups to affix it to a window and a moat to fill with water to deter unwanted insects. (Nicole Murtagh)

Hummingbirds have arrived in the Maritimes much earlier than normal, so it's time to put out your feeders.

Some of the tiny birds were recorded in Truro, N.S., almost two weeks ago, and people reported seeing two on Prince Edward Island last weekend.

"April 18 is super, super early for P.E.I.," said Dwaine Oakley, instructor for the wildlife conservation technology program at Holland College.

"In all my years of feeding them or being involved with the different bird groups who record sightings on P.E.I., I had one show up in the last week of April and that was kind of unheard of in the last 20-30 years."

A rule of thumb has always been to put out hummingbird feeders in this region by Mother's Day around May 9, Oakley said. But not this year.

"Now is the time. You should get your feeders out there now, because definitely some of these early males are already here," he said.

'Cool strategies' to survive cold spring

Oakley and others track the birds' migration using the website hummingbirdcentral.com.

A screenshot from hummingbirdcentral.com shows some of the tiny birds have already been officially seen in Nova Scotia. Local birders have also spotted some in P.E.I.
A screenshot from hummingbirdcentral.com shows some of the tiny birds have already been officially seen in Nova Scotia. Local birders have also spotted some in P.E.I.(hummingbirdcentral.com)

The birds come north in the spring, mate and hatch a couple young, then hang out for the summer, migrating south to Mexico or Central America in the fall. They are triggered to migrate by changes in temperature and daylight, as well as instinct. And they prepare for the journey by feeding, gaining fat reserves and in some cases doubling their weight.

Hummingbirds feed on sap from trees and nectar from flowers. Oakley said one concern is if spring turns so cold the sap won't run from the trees.

"But some of them have developed some really cool strategies as well, to cope with that really cold temperature," he said.

Hummingbirds will find what are called "sap wells" created by yellow-bellied sap-suckers, a type of woodpecker, which drill small circular holes in neat rows in trees, tapping the sugary tree sap to flow.

Another survival strategy hummingbirds use when it's cold is "torpor," Oakley said. To save energy, the birds will enter a slow metabolic state similar to hibernation, and may even appear to be dead. It can last eight hours or more and usually happens overnight when temperatures are coldest, Oakley said.

If you see a hummingbird that looks like it is asleep on your feeder, Oakley said it may be torpor. Don't disturb the bird, as it will expend energy trying to escape human touch — sit back and wait to see if it warms up and becomes active.

He notes that some of the earliest birds do die from the cold.

Dos and don'ts of feeding

Hummingbirds will return to the same feeders year after year — if feeders have not been put out yet, birds will come hover around looking for it, Oakley said.

Hummingbirds are attracted to the colour red, but do not add red food colouring to their sweet food, advises Oakley.
Hummingbirds are attracted to the colour red, but do not add red food colouring to their sweet food, advises Oakley. (Colleen MacKay)

However, he said it is not true that you must put out your feeders first thing to attract the birds all summer. Birds will find your feeders even if you put them out later.

Feeding hummingbirds is fairly easy, Oakley says.

  • Do: create food using one part sugar dissolved in four parts water.

  • Don't: add red dye.

  • Do: use a red feeder and put red accents in your garden

  • Do: thoroughly clean the feeder weekly to prevent fermenting.

  • Do: hang the feeder in a quiet area protected from predators.

  • Don't: hang the feeder in a windy area where it will swing.

The recipe for hummingbird food is simple. Mix one part sugar with four parts water and pour it in a hummingbird feeder. Some people boil the mixture but that is not necessary, Oakley said.

The idea that people should add red dye to the sugar water to attract the birds is "a huge misconception," Oakley said — the dye can be toxic.

However a feeder that incorporates red, as well as red garden accents, will attract hummingbirds. Oakley said hummingbirds have even been attracted to his red life vest when he is out canoeing. Avoid feeders that incorporate the colour yellow, Oakley said, as that can attract bees and wasps.

Oakley prefers a hummingbird feeder that sticks with suction cups on the outside of a window, where squirrels and raccoons can't reach the delicious liquid. To deter ants, he adds soapy water to the feeder's moat.

Prevent 'squabbles'

Of course hummingbirds also love real nectar from real flowers. They enjoy any species with long cone-shaped flowers, especially those that are red or purple, Oakley said. They can be both annuals and perennials.

P.E.I. gets ruby-throated hummingbirds, which migrate south to Mexico or Central America each winter but return to the same feeders every spring in eastern Canada.
P.E.I. gets ruby-throated hummingbirds, which migrate south to Mexico or Central America each winter but return to the same feeders every spring in eastern Canada.(Dwaine Oakley)

Hummingbirds, especially males, are "really territorial over food sources" and will fight with one another over feeders, Oakley said.

To prevent this, add another feeder in a different area — the front of the house rather than the back, he said. "That will help alleviate some of the squabbles that will happen."

You may also attract other birds to the feeders, Oakley said, such as Baltimore orioles and downy woodpeckers.

Don't put out a hummingbird feeder unless you can commit to cleaning it weekly, Oakley advises. Fermented syrup can make the birds sick or kill them.

Although a rule of thumb has been to take down hummingbird feeders around Labour Day at the beginning of September, Oakley encourages people to keep up their feeders even through November, since hummingbirds have recently been seen on P.E.I. as late as mid-November.

If anyone sees hummingbirds in the fall, he urges them to call Nature P.E.I. to make sure it is recorded.

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