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Answers From the Hummingbird Expert

Special thanks to Lanny Chambers for providing his time and expertise in responding to your questions.

Questions From:
North Albany Elementary School, OR

Q. Do the hummingbirds mate in the air, on the ground, or in a nest or tree?

A. Not in a nest. But hummingbirds have been seen to mate on the ground and on tree branches.

Q. Do different species of hummingbirds mate differently?

A. Not that I know of. But most species have not been studied very much, especially the ones in South American rainforests.

Q. Why do the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds only migrate to the West Coast and not the Eastern part of the United States?

A. Actually, most Ruby-throated spend the winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama, in Central America, and they spend the summer in the eastern U.S. and Canada, east of the Great Plains. Only 3 or 4 Ruby-throated have ever been seen on the west coast, where they are extremely rare and far out of place.

Questions From:
Soda Creek Elementary School, CO

Q. Can you describe the migration of the broad tail? (I live in Clark CO. altitude 8,000 ft. and we are over run with them starting May 10th.)

A. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds winter in the highlands of Mexico. They arrive in Colorado in April and May, males ahead of females. They nest between 7000 and 8500 feet elevation, in the wooded transition zone (aspen, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine). After nesting they move upslope to treeline, or even into the alpine tundra zone. Most of them are gone from Colorado by the end of September.

Q. Where are they now and what is their furthest destination?

A. As of today (March 23), probably somewhere in Arizona and New Mexico. They nest as far north as the Wyoming-Montana border.

Q. Also, we occasionally get one with a banded leg? Any idea who banded them?

A. To tell for sure, you'd have to trap them and read the band number, then call the FIsh & Wildlife Service in Washington to find out. But many, many Broad-tailed have been banded by Dr. Bill Calder.

Questions From:
Lassiter Homeschool, AR

Q. We have read that, when feeding hummingbirds, we should avoid red dye. However, the store sells a solution that is mixed with sugar to form the nectar. It contains vitamins, etc. to make it more like flower nectar. Unfortunatley, it also contains red dye. Which, in your opinion, would be best for the hummers: the vitamins with the dye, or the plain sugar water without the dye?

A. Flower nectar doesn't contain vitamins. Actually, different flowers have slightly different nectar ingredients, but all of them are basically sugar and water, with tiny traces of minerals and amino acids. Hummers use the sugar for the quick energy it gives them to chase the bugs that provide nearly all of their real nourishment. They don't need any extra vitamins from us--the bugs provide all they can use.

In my opinion, no hummingbird mix available to the public is worth the money, and none has been tested for safety on hummers. Just mix your own, from plain sugar and water. Given a choice, hummers almost always pick the plain sugar water over the red stuff. They're telling us something, aren't they?

Q. We really enjoy watching our hummingbird feeder! We have lots of questions, though, such as: how many different hummers stay in our area all season, how many are passing though, which are babies that have hatched out

A. Most folks in Arkansas will only see Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. However, a very small number of western species, including Rufous, Anna's, and Black-chinned, sometimes visit in the winter. They usually stay for a short time, then move on. We have no idea where they go, though.

Q. Unfortunately, we cannot tell the hummers apart, with very few exceptions. Are there any tricks to this, or is this information just something that we will never know?

A. Since you only have one breeding species, it's pretty simple: they're all Ruby-throated. If you go out west, where there are more different species, you'll have to study some books to tell them apart. The females are not easy!

Q. Is it believed that all species of hummingbirds in the U.S. have already been identified, or is it possible that there are other species to be discovered?

A. I doubt there are any unidentified species. However, we sometimes get out-of-range visitors from Mexico and the Caribbean, and we might see one that hasn't appeared this far north before.

Questions From:
Inglenook Elementary School, AL

Q. We have two maple trees where we have three feeders. One bird seems to want to dominate all the feeders and chase the others away, what can we do to help the other birds, or should we worry?

A. Nothing to worry about--guarding food sources is what male hummers do for a living. We think that the females may choose mates partly on their ability to defend those feeders, so they'll have the strongest fathers for their chicks. If you want to enjoy three battles instead of one, hang the feeders out of sight of each other. Then three different males will each claim one as his territory.

Q. Does red ribbon in the trees attract the birds to feeders?

A. Yes, I think it can help, especially in the early spring. But tie the ribbons to your feeders, not to trees.

Q. How often should we change the nectar and do you recommend colored nectar instead of just plain water nectar?

A. No red dye, please. Clean the feeder and change the syrup when it first starts getting cloudy. In an Alabama summer, that's probably every other day in the shade, or every day in the sun, unless your hummers suck it dry first. If you boil the water before measuring and mixing in the sugar, it might last one more day before spoiling.

Questions From:
Shorewood Intermediate School,WI

Q. I was wondering if the hummingbird's vocal chords were similiar or different to the human vocal chords?

A. I haven't been able to find out for you. Sorry.

Questions From:
Detroit Country Day School, MI

Q. We read that hummingbirds do not have down feathers. We also read that it is the down feathers that helps keep birds warm. We were wondering about the Chimborazo hillstar hummingbird that lives at 14,000 feet, high in the Andes. Do they have down feathers?

Q.If not what keeps them warm every night when it gets below freezing? How do they survive such a cold environment?

A. No. But other birds don't enter torpor at night. Torpor is a hummingbird specialty: they can reduce their metabolism by 90% at night, so they won't starve to death before breakfast. Their body temperatures and heart and respiration rates get so low that they appear quite dead...until the sun comes up and they slowly regain consciousness.

Lanny Chambers
St. Louis, MO

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