Hummingbird Myths


(This 910th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 31, 2008.)




A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

photo by Mike Dunn

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences


Several publications have recently included lists of hummingbird myths. The latest appeared on Bill Hilton's Hilton Pond website, which I recommend to you. Hilton is arguably the most knowledgeable hummingbird specialist in the eastern United States. I will draw upon his list in developing my own half dozen myths.


Myth 1. Colored water is necessary for hummingbird feeders. Here I quote from Hilton's excellent response: "Virtually all commercially made hummingbird feeders have red plastic parts that negate any need for food coloring. Although the jury isn't in about possible dangers of red dye to hummingbirds, such chemicals are additives that might cause harm; since the dye is not needed, why take the risk? Keep your sugar water fresh and curious hummingbirds will eventually find and frequent your feeder - no matter what color it might be."


Myth 2. You should not feed hummingbirds after Labor Day because you will delay their migration, possibly threatening their lives. Nonsense. The compulsive force of birds' migration instinct, acquired over thousands of years of evolution, will not be modified by a few cups of sugar water. Hilton maintains feeders year round at his North Carolina preserve and has found that they have never affected hummingbird migration.


Also, if you leave your feeder out, it may serve as a stopover diet supplement for birds coming through from farther north or it may even save lingering birds that, possibly because of injury, cannot migrate. For example, we have had Baltimore orioles winter in this area, obtaining part of their food from hummingbird feeders providing these off-season supplies. (If an oriole does stay in your yard, you can further assist it by setting out halved oranges or apples.)


Moreover, by continuing to supply your feeder late in the year, you may attract a vagrant hummingbird such as the rufous hummingbird, a rare visitor from the far west that has been recorded here several times in recent years. These birds, whose normal range is along the Pacific coast, seem increasingly inclined to wander east in fall and often appear at feeders after our native ruby-throated hummingbirds have left. In November 1998, several of us visited a home in Binghamton where we saw a still rarer westerner, an Anna's hummingbird, visiting a feeder.


Myth 3. If I go on vacation and stop feeding my hummingbirds they will die. No, they will simply find other food sources. If they don't return when you come back, it is probably because they have found a neighbor's feeder to which they have accommodated.


Myth 4. Hummingbirds are monogamous. Far from it. Observers find that hummers are sexually 'loyal' to their mates for about the second it takes them to copulate. Neither males nor females are discriminating in their mating and many nests contain eggs fertilized by different fathers.


Myth 5. Small baby hummingbirds are feeding on my flowers. Hummingbirds do not leave their nest until they are as large as the mother that has cared for them. There are two possibilities for those midgets. If it is coming to your feeder, it is most likely a bumblebee or giant hornet. If it is coming to your flowers it is almost certainly a hummingbird clearwing moth. This remarkable hummingbird look-alike also mimics hummers by rapidly beating its wings, quite unlike most other moths.


Hilton points out that reports of hummingbirds from Europe are almost certainly moths like these as hummers are native only to the Western Hemisphere.


Myth 6. Hummingbirds hitch rides on the backs of larger birds like hawks or geese when migrating. This is my favorite hummingbird myth because, although no such hitchhiking has ever been observed, some ornithologists formerly argued for it. Their reasoning: hummingbirds migrate almost 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico, too far for these tiny birds to last on their limited supply of energy; thus, they must hitch rides. Now, however, it has been shown that, like other long-distance migrants, before setting out on this challenging marathon, hummingbirds gain 25-40% extra body fat, just enough to supply them.


But even this is sometimes not enough. A hummingbird cannot make forward progress in a 20 mile per hour headwind and weather changes lead to many deaths. Less than half of newborn hummers survive their first year.-- Gerry Rising