Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Hummingbirds
by the staff of the
Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory
Q: How many species of hummingbirds are there, and how many are found where I live?
A: Over 320 species are known to science. All are found only in the Western Hemisphere, and the vast majority live in the tropical forests of Central and South America. Almost half of the known species have been reported from Ecuador, a South American country slightly larger than California.
Of the 26 species of hummingbirds that have been reported north of Mexico, only 15 are found here every year. If you live east of the Mississippi River, you are unlikely to see more than one species, the Ruby-throated. At least 4 species are seen annually in coastal Texas and Louisiana, but small numbers of several other species have appeared along the Gulf Coast in fall and winter. From the Rocky Mountains west you may find from 4 to 7 species annually, with southern California boasting 3 resident and 4 migrant species.
But the greatest diversity of hummingbird species in the United States is found along the U.S.-Mexico border from western Texas to southern Arizona. At least thirteen species can be found in the southeastern corner of Arizona each year.
Q: Why does southeastern Arizona have so many different species of hummingbirds?
A: As with other kinds of real estate, the secret of wildlife habitat is location. Southeastern Arizona lies at the crossroads of five major biogeographic regions. The plants and animals of its mountains, deserts, grasslands and streamside forests include species typical of the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Madre of Mexico, and the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave deserts as well as species found nowhere else on earth. Its birdlife is particularly diverse because many species pass through in migration between nesting grounds in the northwestern U.S. and western Canada and wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.
Q: When is the best time to see hummingbirds in southeastern Arizona?
A: Though there are a few hummingbirds that stay all year in the warmer parts of the state, most of the hummingbird species that make southeastern Arizona so special arrive in April or May and leave by early October. You'll find the most spectacular diversity of hummingbirds during the late summer rainy season, when local nesters overlap with Mexican species following the rains northward as well as northern nesters on their way south into Mexico. In a week of birding in southeastern Arizona between late July and early September, it's possible to find up to 15 species of hummingbirds, more than you'll find in any other part of the United States.
For those whose visits are limited to the winter months, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum maintains up to 10 species in its aviaries. The special hummingbird aviary houses smaller species, including Broad-billed, Costa's, Rufous and Calliope, while the larger Magnificent and Blue-throated hummingbirds have a home in the main aviary.
Q: What are some other good places to see hummingbirds?
A: The closer you get to the equator, the more species of hummingbirds you find find, so serious hummingbird enthusiasts often choose exotic destinations such as Costa Rica, Peru and Ecuador. Closer to home the best places to go are, not surprisingly, in the warmer regions of the South and Southwest and along major migratory routes. The Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Mississippi River and southern to central Rocky Mountains are important flyways for many species of birds, and hummingbirds often concentrate along these routes by the hundreds or thousands, especially during fall migration. "Hotspots" include the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida in March and April, the front range of Colorado in June and July, northern New Mexico and Arizona in July and August, the mountains of central and southern California in July and August, and the central Gulf Coast of Texas in September. While these sites can't match the diversity found in southeastern Arizona, the spectacle of so many hummingbirds on the move is well worth seeing.
Fair to good numbers of hummingbirds can be seen all year in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and southern and coastal California, and a surprising number of hummingbirds, mostly western species such as Rufous, spend the winter in gardens and at feeding stations along the Gulf Coast from southeastern Texas to Florida.
Q: I'm sure I have three or four kinds of hummingbirds in my yard, but the books say there is only one kind where I live. What am I seeing?
A: They're probably females and immature or molting males of your one local species. Females and young males are often dramatically different in appearance from adult males, and the loss of feathers during molt increases the confusion. Also, hummingbirds' colors change as the light changes due to the iridescent nature of their feathers. A good identification guide, such as A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America (a Peterson Field Guide), will help you sort out the plumage differences in your common species as well as prepare you in case a wanderer of a different species pays you a visit.
Q: How can I attract hummingbirds to my yard?
A: By far the best way is to create the right kind of habitat, and providing nectar is the first step. Almost any tubular or trumpet-shaped red, orange or deep pink flower will attract hummingbirds, but the best choices are plants native to your area. Hummingbirds also eat large quantities of insects and need shelter for nesting, and you can provide these by planting native trees, shrubs and other plants and limiting your use of pesticides. Nature centers, botanic gardens, birding and conservation organizations, native plant societies, state wildlife agencies, and native plant nurseries are all good sources of information on selecting native trees, shrubs and hummingbird-pollinated plants for your landscape.
Q: What if I have a "brown thumb" or don't have space for a hummingbird garden?
A: Many hummingbirds will readily accept sugar-water feeders as a substitute for flowers, though it may be difficult to get them to stay unless natural foods and good nesting habitat are available nearby.
Q: What is the best kind of hummingbird feeder?
A: Hummingbirds will take sugar water from almost any container, so your choice of feeder should be based on your needs. Durability and ease of cleaning and filling are most important, but features that discourage ants, bees and larger birds may be useful in your situation. Feeders with lots of red color may be more visible to the birds, but all-red feeders make it difficult to tell when they need refilling. Avoid feeders with yellow parts as this color attracts bees.
"Bargain" feeders are more expensive in the long run as they are less durable. Though some feeders sell for under $5, the better models cost between $15 and $30. These "high-end" feeders often have useful features missing from discount-store models and may last more than 10 years.
Q: What size feeder should I buy?
A: This depends on how many hummingbirds will be using your feeder. The rule of thumb is to put out no more solution than the birds can drink in two or three days. If your feeder is too large, the solution spoils before the birds can finish it. If your feeder is too small, you spend more time filling feeders than enjoying the birds. Most people can get by with feeders that hold 8 to 12 ounces of solution, adding one or two more small feeders during migration.
Q: What solution should I use to fill my feeder?
A: We recommend a solution of 3 to 5 parts water to 1 part white sugar. The natural nectar of hummingbird flowers varies widely in sugar content, and this range of concentrations has proven safe and attractive in feeder solutions. For an 8-ounce feeder, mix about 1/4 cup sugar with 1 cup hot water (the measurements don't have to be precise). Briefly boiling or microwaving the solution helps delay spoilage; always refrigerate leftovers. Never substitute artificial sweeteners or honey, and use bottled or filtered water if your tap water is cloudy or has a strong odor. Avoid using artificially softened, distilled or de-mineralized water, which may cause electrolyte imbalances.
Don't be tempted to increase the sugar beyond a 3:1 ratio. Hummingbirds get much of their water from nectar, and very strong solutions may cause dehydration and kidney damage. Also, every acre of sugar beets or sugar cane is one less acre of natural habitat, so conserving sugar helps to conserve habitat for hummingbirds and other wildlife.
Q: Wouldn't honey be more natural to use than white sugar?
A: No! Honey is both unnatural and unhealthy for hummingbirds. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers seldom visited by hummingbirds. This nectar is chemically different from that of hummingbird flowers and is further changed by the bees. Honey also contains spores which have caused fatal infections in hummingbirds.
The nectar produced by hummingbird flowers is a relatively pure solution of sugars and water. White sugar, also known as sucrose, is not only a natural food for hummingbirds but also the sugar they prefer over all others in "taste tests."
Q: What about red dye? Don't hummingbirds need a colored solution?
A: Absolutely not! Natural nectar is colorless, and we should follow nature's example by putting all the color on the outside of the feeder so it doesn't end up inside the bird.
There is widespread concern over possible health effects of dyes and other additives. Many chemicals that are harmless to humans are toxic to other species; for example, chocolate can be deadly to dogs and cats. The dyes used in feeder solutions are approved for human use by the Food and Drug Administration but have never been proven safe for hummingbirds.
While food dyes do not appear to have serious short-term effects on hummingbirds' health, we know nothing about their long-term safety. Hummingbirds' long life spans and enormous appetites for nectar may make them susceptible to toxic or carcinogenic effects of supposedly harmless chemicals. If in doubt, trust the birds themselves; given a choice, most hummingbirds will choose a colorless solution over one containing dye as long as the feeder itself is brightly colored.
Q: How and how often should I clean my feeder?
A: Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week, more often if the solution becomes cloudy or smells fermented. Hot water and a bottle brush or special feeder brush are usually all you need to do the job, but vinegar or a weak solution of chlorine bleach may be necessary if mold is a problem. Soap and detergent are not recommended as they may leave residues.
Q: The hummingbirds in my yard are always fighting over my feeder. How can I get them to share?
A: You can't. Hummingbirds are naturally aggressive and territorial. The only way to minimize the fighting is to space two or more feeders far enough apart that one bird can't monopolize them.
Q: Is it true that I have to take my hummingbird feeders down at the end of the summer or the birds won't migrate?
A: No. The instinct to migrate is so strong that nothing short of captivity can keep a healthy, normal migratory bird from going south. The few hummingbirds that try to winter in climates too cold for their survival most likely are physically unfit to migrate or have off-kilter internal compasses and would have died sooner had they not found feeders. By leaving a feeder up you may give a disadvantaged bird a second chance at survival.
In most parts of the country, you can take down your feeder when a week has passed since you last saw a hummingbird. If you live along the Gulf or Pacific coasts or in the desert Southwest, you may have hummingbirds visiting your yard all year long.
Q: Do hummingbirds really migrate on the backs of geese?
A: No. It's hard to understand how such a myth got started in the first place and why it persists. Not only do waterfowl hunters not find dead hummingbirds in the feathers of their quarry, but it's easy to observe hummingbirds migrating on their own. While hummingbirds would certainly benefit from such an arrangement, there's really no way it could work. Hummingbirds and geese don't migrate at the same time or to the same places; any hitchhiking hummingbird that didn't starve before its ride finally headed south would still have a long journey from the goose's winter wetland home to its own safe haven in the tropics.
The real story is amazing enough. Tiny though they are, hummingbirds migrate totally under their own power, following internal calendars and compasses and fueled by stored fat and whatever food they can find along the way.
Q: How far do hummingbirds migrate?
A: That varies from species to species and even population to population. Most tropical hummingbirds do very little traveling, since there are no cold temperatures and few food shortages to avoid. Further north the mild winter weather along the Pacific Coast and parts of the Mexican border offers a few species, such as Anna's and Costa's hummingbirds, a suitable year-round home. But most hummingbirds found north of Mexico are highly migratory, spending the summer and winter in completely different areas. The champion migrant is the Rufous Hummingbird, some of which must travel a minimum of 2700 miles one way from the northern edge of their nesting range in Alaska to the northern edge of their wintering range in Mexico. This distance equals 49 million body lengths, one of the longest migrations in proportion to size of any creature.
Q: How long do hummingbirds live?
A: A lot longer than we once thought. Very small animals with high metabolisms usually have short lifespans, and our early experiences suggested that hummingbirds were no exception. The first captive hummingbirds seldom lived more than a few months to a couple of years, but scientific research into their feeding habits and nutritional needs has enabled some to live up to 14 years in captivity. Banding studies have shown that even wild hummingbirds can survive more than a decade. The oldest known wild hummingbird, a female Broad-tailed banded as an adult in Colorado, was at least 12 years 2 months old when last seen.
Q: What should I do if I find an injured, sick, or orphaned hummingbird?
A: Often these cases are not as bad as they seem. Hummingbirds are very resilient creatures; a bird that has hit a window may recover on its own within a few minutes to an hour if left in a safe place outdoors, out of direct sunlight and away from pets and children. Most "orphaned" birds, including hummingbirds, are not in any danger at all. Parent birds keep a low profile near the nest to avoid attracting predators, and their short, stealthy visits to feed the nestlings may go unobserved for hours or even days. We also tend to underestimate the strong bonds between parents and their young. Most birds have a poorly developed sense of smell and cannot detect human scent on babies that have been handled, and even if they could their parental instincts would overcome their fear. Baby hummingbirds whose nest has been damaged or destroyed will still be cared for by their mother if placed in a small basket or open box as near to the original nest location as possible and out of reach of children and pets.
In rare situations a hummingbird may need the expert care that only an experienced and licensed wildlife rehabilitator can provide. Hummingbirds have very specialized needs, and each year many sick, injured, and baby hummingbirds die slow, painful deaths in the hands of well-meaning but unqualified individuals. For the best chance of survival, the bird should be turned over to a rehabilitator as soon as possible, preferably within an hour of the time it was found. To prepare for a hummingbird or other wildlife emergency, contact your veterinarian or local nature center, humane society, zoo, or state department of wildlife office for the phone number of a wildlife rescue organization or individual rehabilitator near you, or look under "Animal Rescue, Relocate & Transport" in the yellow pages.
Q: There aren't nearly as many hummingbirds visiting my yard now as there used to be. What's happening?
A: This is a complicated question. Little is known about long-term changes in hummingbird populations and migratory patterns, though weather can influence the number and diversity of birds at feeders from year to year and even hour to hour. Studies have shown that hummingbirds visit feeders less frequently when wildflowers are abundant, so fewer birds at your feeder may be a sign of a good wildflower crop or even the presence of more feeders in your neighborhood.
If your local hummingbird populations are truly declining, habitat destruction is almost certainly part of the problem. Each year hundreds of thousands of acres of natural habitat are lost to development on both the northern nesting grounds and tropical wintering grounds of hummingbirds and other migratory birds. Pesticides may also play a role, affecting hummingbirds both directly and indirectly by contaminating their insect prey.
Q: Where can I learn more about hummingbirds?
A: There are a wide variety of helpful resources available, ranging from children's books to in-depth scientific treatments of the subject. Your local public library may also have some of these titles.
For more in-depth information on hummingbirds in your area, contact your local bird observatory, nature center, natural history museum, or Audubon society for programs and workshops on hummingbirds. The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory offers several hummingbird programs each year, from short presentations at the Southwest Wings Birding Festival to multi-day programs such as the Institute for Field Ornithology Hummingbirds Workshop.
Q: What can I do to help ensure that hummingbirds are around for future generations to learn from and enjoy?
A: Habitat destruction and pesticide use here and in the tropics are among the greatest threats to migratory birds such as hummingbirds, but they also face many other unnatural dangers, including domestic cats, imported diseases, transmission towers, even windows. The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory is one of thousands of organizations, agencies, businesses and individuals all over the Americas working together to identify the threats to migratory birds and find solutions before species become endangered.
For information on how you can help ensure a future for hummingbirds and other migratory birds, contact:
Southeastern Arizona Bird ObservatoryP.O. Box 5521
Bisbee, Arizona 85603-5521