Each and every spring around Mother’s Day weekend is when I normally see my first ruby-throated hummingbird of the year. It’s always a lone male. Followed by another male. And then another. And another. And so on.
Shortly afterward a few females arrive, until, all four feeders are alive with a dizzying multitude of buzzing wings, dive-bombing bodies and chirping beaks. So intense is the battle for space and feeding ports, that it’s a wonder any of the birds get to feed at all, yet, truth be told, I find myself filling the feeders daily until the bulk of the mob disperses to establish separate breeding territories elsewhere. And, as is always the case, three to four pairs stay behind to nest near my home.
Although a hummingbird lull at the feeders occurs every summer and is to be expected because the adults are busy capturing insects and feeding them to their hungry and demanding youngsters, I’ve nevertheless gone through 25 pounds of sugar this season and I’m about to buy another 20 pounds to get them through the remainder of August and September. Hordes of adults and fledglings -- and migrants later on -- have begun their relentless daily draining of the feeders.
It’s hard to say exactly why I attract so many hummingbirds, but I presume it’s partly because I provide them with a steady, reliable, and high sugar-content source of energy. While some people opt for the four-to-one ratio, I’ve been mixing three parts water to one part sugar for many years. As well, I’ve plenty of nesting habitat and wild flowers, too. So who knows? Hummingbird haven? Maybe.
I remember the first time I learned about how sugar content affects hummingbird use. During the summer of 1995 I worked as a park naturalist at Itasca State Park. One of the other naturalists, Ben Thoma, a big man and sometimes a little rough around the edges who taught biology at Ridgewater College in Willmar during the school year, lived in a cabin at Bear Paw Campground most every summer for 41 years. Ben was a walking encyclopedia of animal natural history, Itasca State Park history and much more. He was widely known by park visitors and DNR employees present and past. Indeed, the park programs and interpretive hikes that Ben gave were very popular.
On the front lawn of Ben’s cabin near the campground road was a clothesline-like set up with a single, thick wire stretched tightly between two tall posts that were placed about 30 feet apart. Hanging on the wire were a dozen or more hummingbird feeders of various sizes, shapes and styles. All of the feeders were spaced at equal distances from each other and each feeder was numbered.
The whole assembly was swarming with so many hummingbirds that it was impossible to count them. Oddly, some feeders attracted more birds than others. As I stood mesmerized by the spectacle and sounds of dozens of hummingbirds fighting for turns at the feeders, I asked Ben why there were so many feeders and why were they all numbered?
With a slight sneer, Ben barked, “Why do you think?!” I thought about it for a moment, but couldn’t come up with a good answer. Yes, Ben, the consummate professor and naturalist, always inquisitive and always testing his younger subjects.
“It’s an experiment!” he bellowed. “Each feeder is filled with a different ratio of water to sugar. I’m trying to figure out which ratio they prefer!”
It turned out that Ben’s experiment yielded “mixed” results, but what could not be denied was the visual evidence that sweeter mixes attracted more hummingbirds than the feeders containing diluted mixtures of sugar-water.
Hummingbirds, as we all know and Ben’s experiment showed, definitely have a sweet tooth. Moreover, they seem to be selective. The sweeter the better! Hummingbirds are unquestionably among the most unique and delightful of Minnesota’s migrant birds, sweet tooth and all. Fascinating to observe, to feed, and attract to our homes, the tiny titans, full of energy and entertainment, are endearing in every way as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.