Wildlife: Hummers coming to a feeder near you

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A great way to track the progress of spring is to monitor the website, www.hummingbirds.net/map.html, where volunteers report observations of northbound ruby-throated hummingbirds. Before 1997, I tracked hummingbird movements only by watching my feeders. Since then, I just check the website a few times each week.

The first hummingbirds usually arrive on the Gulf Coast in February. Northward movements are largely determined by weather. Lanny Chambers, owner of the Michigan-based hummer site, relies on volunteers to submit reports of the first hummingbirds they see.

Ruby-throats are back early this year. The first report from the Pittsburgh area came on April 12, the same day one was reported in northeastern Massachusetts. By the next day reports arrived from northern Ohio, northern Illinois, northern New Jersey, northeastern Pennsylvania and central New York.

If you have not yet hung a nectar feeder, do it today. The nectar recipe is simple: mix one part table sugar with four parts boiling water, cool and refrigerate.

Do not use honey -- it promotes a fungus that can harm or even kill hummingbirds. Red dye is unnecessary because nectar feeders are red, designed to catch hummers' attention. If you're offering nectar for the first time, enhance the feeder's appeal by tying an 18-inch length of red ribbon to the feeder.

For now, one or two feeders will suffice. Before nesting begins, hummer numbers at feeders can usually be counted on one hand. When young come off the nests in July, however, feeding stations attract females and young from surrounding areas. From mid-July through August, I can usually count 10 to 20 hummingbirds -- during some years many more -- at my feeders.

I'm often asked how hummingbirds can survive on sugar water. Nectar provides energy, but little nutrition, and makes up only about half of the hummingbird diet. The rest of their food consists of a variety of nutritious soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, aphids and flies.

Feeding hummingbirds is like feeding seed-eating birds. It's not necessary. Birds can find plenty of natural foods. We bait them with nectar so we can watch them, simply because we enjoy them.

Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8-10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and online at www.wvly.net. He can be reached at www.drshalaway.com, sshalaway@aol.com and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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