Spring is really here. The hummingbirds are back. The first call came in on Saturday, April 12, when a hummer showed up in Golden. The second and third were reported on Sunday, April 13, in Genesee and Kittredge.
I was amazed of these first reports. Not only are the birds usually looking for the feeder in the same place they fed last summer, but usually these first reports are along the front edge of the foothills. Having them penetrate this far into the foothills canyon is unexpected.
The hummers that come to our house have always arrived on a warm day between April 25 and 27. These have been firm dates for 49 years, so the reports from Golden, Genesee and Kittredge are two weeks earlier than we usually see them this deep in the canyon.
How lucky we are to live in the Western Hemisphere because we are the only people who have hummingbirds. There are none in Europe, Asia, Africa or Australia. We have 18 species of hummingbirds here in the states in summer, and they all migrate to Central and South America for the winter.
If you are preparing to put up your hummingbird feeders, make sure to keep them clean and follow the formula for making the syrup: one part sugar to four parts water. This is the closest that we can duplicate the natural nectar that these birds eat.
These same authorities also emphasize that there should be no substitute for the sugar such as honey or raw sugar for two reasons. The substitution may have more or less sweetening than plain granulated white sugar thereby making the syrup too mild or too sweet. Too little sugar and they may not get sufficient food, and too much sugar makes a rich solution that may cause liver problems.
Honey may contain mold spores that will later grow and develop in the birds’ throats, causing throat closure and eventual death. So keep it simple. A 1-to-4 solution of granulated white sugar and water. Change it daily in hot weather and keep the feeder clean and mold free.
Many newcomers to this area see our green hummingbirds with a red throat and think they are seeing a ruby-throated hummingbird. They are not. The ruby-throated hummingbird is an eastern hummingbird that is rarely seen west of the Mississippi River. There are only a very few records for the state of Colorado, and those are usually along the eastern border. What they actually are seeing is a broad-tailed hummingbird.
There are slight differences in these two birds. The ruby-throated hummingbird has a red throat that is actually an orange-red, much the color of strawberry juice, while the broad-tailed bird has a raspberry red throat. Our broad-tailed hummingbirds winter in Mexico and arrive here between May 15 and 30, depending upon when spring finally arrives. They are our common nesting summer hummingbird.
About July 4, the rufous hummingbirds begin to arrive. Although they are here for most of our summer, there is no known nesting in Colorado. They are bold, domineering and once they find a feeder, they take it over and will not allow any other hummer to use it. The only solution I have found to this is to put feeders up in many places so that he cannot see all of them from any one point. Then while he is defending one feeder, sometimes a broad-tailed hummingbird can slip in to eat at another.
Although most of the guides refer to the rufous as being orange, I personally think of them as being the color of a bright new copper penny.
These little birds are exceptional even by hummingbird standards. They winter in Mexico and migrate north in the spring along the Pacific coast as far as Alaska. The early western spring provides them with wildflowers for food and nesting. By the time California wildflowers are withered and brown, the rufous hummingbirds turn inland where the Rocky Mountain wildflowers are plentiful for their trip south.
The first birds to appear here in July are considered to be unmated males or other males that may have already mated and left the females to take care of things. Now, their job completed, they sip their way down the Rockies, enjoying the flowers. The females are left to build the nest, lay and incubate the eggs, and feed the young.
Hummingbirds have never heard of women’s lib. When the females have taught the young how to find their own food, they, too, abandon them and leaves for their winter home. The young do not leave until they have strengthened their wing muscles and put on enough body fat to make the trip.
They apparently have a strong inborn instinct that tells them where they should go and how to get there. With no adult guidance, they make this amazing journey of thousands of miles and arrive in the same area in which their parents winter.
We seldom see hummingbirds after mid-September, but many people leave their feeders up because when a hummingbird does show up in October or November, it is usually a stray bird that has been displaced by a fall storm. These are usually odd and unusual species that everyone wants to see.
As to female hummingbirds, I can only say, be certain. Learn the local broad-tailed hummingbird well so you have something with which to compare your new bird. Hummingbirds can be displaced by tornadoes and severe windstorms. Many of the males are difficult to tell apart such as the Allen’s and the rufous, but the females are even more difficult.
Study the guides until you know what to look for such as wing length as compared with tail length, size, color and where the color is located. Remember, most color on hummingbirds is caused by reflected light. Try to get the bird in full sun if possible.