For some people the sight of a robin hopping around in the yard is a sure sign of spring. I’ve seen too many robins on snowy days to believe them. Other species of birds, absent all winter, are better predictors of spring and I revelle each April day when I spot a redwing blackbird, sandhill crane or less hardy species of ducks like woodies or blue-winged teal in wetlands.
But for me, I know I can put my woolies away for several months when the first hummer shows up at my feeder. By hummer I mean the ruby-throated hummingbird, (RTH) the only one of more than 300 species of hummers found in North and South America which regularly shows up east of the Mississippi.
One of the reasons hummingbirds, especially the ruby-throats, are such harbingers of spring is due to their food habits and metabolism. If humans worked as hard as hummers, we’d need about 98,327 calories per day, just to stay alive.
Okay, I made that number up, but for their body size, they require lots and lots of food (calories) and most species — including the ruby-throated get those calories by sucking sweet nectar from flowering plants. There are darned few plants showing their flowers in late March and early April around here — even though I regularly see robins and cranes at that time of the year.
A few RTH’s winter in south Florida but most head on south to southern Mexico and beyond. The urge to migrate north sparks their instinct to head north in the spring, but their need to feed keeps them from overflying the “flower-bloom” line. If you want to find out where that is, check out the updated map at www. hummingbird central.com. When I was writing this there were very few reports north of the Mason Dixon Line.
I hang my hummer feeder out in mid-April just to make sure when that first migrant does comes through, it’s given a welcome. Most years, it’s a few day either way from May first before the first of the season is spotted siphoning up my sugar water.
At about the same time the hummingbirds show up, an even more spectacular migrant will be heading north — Baltimore orioles. I don’t know if they are following the “bloom-line” as much as the RTHs do, but I like to be just as ready for my oriole flock as for the hummers.
I stock up on grape jelly, and put oranges on my shopping list. Orioles appreciate sugar-water nectar, and will help themselves to the sweetened water in the hummingbird feeder, but they are much more attracted to the color orange, than red and most hummer feeders are colored red. That’s why I put out orange halves for the orioles, as well.
You can simply place the orange halves and a small bowl of grape jelly on a platform feeder, but with so many attractive hanging oriole feeders on the market, consider buying a specially designed orange-colored oriole feeder.
I’ve found the orioles will feed on oranges the first few days after they arrive but as soon as they figure out there is grape jelly in the oriole feeders they quickly lose interest in the oranges and feed almost exclusively on grape jelly. I could usually attract an oriole or two with my RTH feeder and orange halves, but until I started filling the feeders with jelly, these brilliantly colored birds didn’t stay in the area. As soon as grape jelly was on the menu, everything changed. Suddenly a dozen orioles were vying for the jelly and pairs of both Baltimore and orchard orioles remained in the yard, nested, and brought their fledglings to the oriole feeder. Now, orioles are our favorite summer feeder visitors. What a dramatic change grape jelly made!
Both hummingbird and oriole feeders are very attractive to ants and though I don’ t think the birds really care, a feeder full of stuck or drowned ants looks nasty. I’ve solved this problem with ant motes positioned just above the hanging feeders. The moats keep the ants away and actually serve as a miniature bird watering troughs used by many species.