For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds Heading Our Way

Original Air Date: April 6, 2009 Rerun Dates: April 15, 2016; April 5, 2011; April 16, 2010

Hummingbirds aren’t here yet, but are on their way.

Duration: 4′30″


Hummingbirds headed our way! Despite wintry weather in the past few weeks, by April 2 some hummingbirds had already worked their way up into southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, Detroit, and northern Ohio, though the vast majority are still sensibly lingering in the southern states.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration is hardly unusual—it happens every spring. The vanguard of this year’s flight is a bit earlier than normal, but the bulk of hummingbirds will return about when they always do. Yet every year people get excited all over. Whether we set out our feeders early, just in case, or make it a Mother’s Day tradition, the moment we see our first hummingbird of the year we feel surprised and happy.

Hummingbird migration is both ordinary and extraordinary, natural and magical. These birds weigh little more than one tenth of an ounce—you could mail nine or ten with a single postage stamp! Yet they cover thousands of miles, many crossing the Gulf of Mexico in a dramatic long-distance flight with no way to feed or rest until they reach the far shore. This may be an everyday event each spring, but it’s nevertheless miraculous.

Hummingbirds virtually always return before there are any nectar-bearing flowers. What do they eat? Tiny flying insects provide plenty of calories and protein—when my hummingbirds in Duluth aren’t at my feeders, they’re often darting every which way chasing bugs at the top of my big spruce tree. The tips of newly growing branches ooze sap, which provides a nectar substitute as well as attracting those bugs. Hummingbirds are also attracted to sap oozing from Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drill holes. Except in extreme conditions, our feeders aren’t necessary—but as King Lear said, O reason not the need! Those feeders obviously provide welcome sustenance, since such a high percentage of hummingbirds detect and visit them so readily. And our hummingbird feeders also provide nourishment for our own souls. To be truly nourishing for hummingbirds, we need to be careful to provide the right stuff. Only use regular old sugar—not honey, which fosters fungus and bacteria too quickly. Never use food coloring, which has been proven harmful to hummingbirds. And make your sugar water the right strength. Normally, one-quarter cup of sugar to one cup of water is perfect. During droughts and extreme heat, mixing a stronger solution can make hummingbirds slightly dehydrated. But during bad cold spells, especially during migration, feel free to make it stronger, up to about one third cup of sugar per cup of water, which will provide the added calories important for maintaining body temperature.

Keep their sugar water fresh—it ferments very quickly in hot weather, and even if it hasn’t become moldy may well cause liver damage. During hot spells, change the water every day or two. I own twice as many feeders as I use at a time, swapping out a clean one when I change the water so I can wash the used ones in my dishwasher.

Hummingbirds are every bit as much a treasure as the rubies that give them their name. Even during an economic downturn, watching these bejeweled birds in our own backyards can make us feel rich indeed. You can see exactly where hummingbirds have arrived by clicking on the report link at