By Brannen Basham
A brief flash of color accompanied by an audible hum is normally the way most hummingbirds are spotted in our landscapes during the spring and summer.
North Carolina is home to a variety of hummingbirds throughout the growing seasons, the vast majority of which are simply moving through to flowerier pastures. This is mostly due to the fact that their small and poorly insulated forms don’t lend well to surviving temperate winters, so hummingbirds migrate each year between summer homes in the United States and winter hideaways in Mexico, Central America, Caribbean islands and South America.
Each year these tiny birds fly hundreds of miles between their happy places, gorging themselves for weeks beforehand to ensure they have enough energy and fat reserves to make the trip.
A few birds have been seen braving the cold as close to home as the Outer Banks, however a hummingbird finding itself in Sylva past the fall would find itself in deep trouble.
The only species that appears to settle down for some time in our area is the ruby-throated hummingbird.
These attractive birds raise their young in and around the Appalachian mountains, but their nests can be easily missed due to their small size.
About the size of a ping-pong ball, ruby-throated hummingbird nests are normally made from only the finest of ingredients, including pristine spider silk. Some camouflage usually adorns the outside of the nest, commonly in the form of lichen and/or moss. The pea sized eggs are also easily missed, and crushed, so pay special attention when working in and around medium-to large sized trees and shrubs in the summer.
Despite their rather unique methods of flying and hovering, which require rapid wing beats that consume copious amounts of energy, the hummingbird’s main claim to fame is that they are some of the only birds to drink nectar in large amounts.
This is achieved with the help of extremely dexterous tongues equipped with specialized grooves that help grab and hold on to nectar. Unlike other known birds, hummingbird tongues can also taste the sweet nectar they drink due to a change in certain receptors in their brains normally tuned to savory tastes.
Science is still unclear on how this happened. Did certain birds first decide to drink the nectar around them and then eventually develop the capacity to taste it, or did a mutation or other change in the taste receptors in certain birds compel them to develop a sweet tooth? Whatever the case, hummingbirds have been addicted to sugar ever since.
Although they rely on nectar for most of their sustenance, hummingbirds also eat insects throughout the day, providing some pest control as well.
It’s important to maintain insect-dense areas chock full of native plants to support hummingbirds and encourage them to settle nearby.
A feeder is a great way to get a close look at the hummingbirds in your area, although if popular enough they will start fighting over it unless you have multiple feeders and/or adequate native blooms (the pro choice).
Make sure to fill your feeders with the correct ratio of sugar to water, 1:4, and don’t use dyes or other additives. Although they seem to especially love red tubular flowers like cardinal flower, bee balm and trumpet honeysuckle, hummingbirds love almost any flower in bloom when they come to visit.
It’s especially important to plant plenty of tall growing species, since cats, snakes and even praying mantises will lie in wait near low growing flowers in the hopes of catching such a worthy prize.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.