Southeast Missouri couple passes hummingbird torch
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – When hummingbirds arrive in the area of Cape Girardeau this spring, they will be looking for new friends to visit.
In 1996, Judy Ainsworth saw hummingbirds coming to a friend’s nectar feeder and fell in love. Soon she had several feeders of her own. Seeing how much joy the jewel-like feathered creatures gave her, Judy’s husband, Jim, launched into hummingbird feeding in a big way. One feeder turned into four. Four multiplied to 12, and the number of hummingbirds visiting the Ainsworths’ yard kept pace with the increasing supply of sugar water.
At the peak of their hummer-feeding career, the Ainsworths put out 24 feeders, each holding 48 ounces of nectar, every April and went through 10 pounds of sugar a day during the peak feeding months from May through August. They bought sugar in 50- to 70-pound lots. Jim once calculated how many hummingbirds it would take to suck down the amount of sugar water he was putting out each day.
“It came to somewhere between 500 and 700 birds,” he says. “After eating, they would fly back across the field toward the woods at Trail of Tears State Park. There’s no telling how many hundreds of young ones we were feeding.”
Eventually, though, the demands of daily feeding for five months at a stretch overwhelmed the couple.
“We thoroughly enjoyed it through the years,” says Jim. “But due to health problems, we had to give it up. Those little things were working me to death.”
So in 2013, the Ainsworths decided not to put out any feeders at all. They stuck to their decision when hummingbirds arrived in April and hovered around windows, as if they hoped to remind their benefactors it was time to start mixing up sugar water. But their resolve crumbled when they saw a hummingbird trying to get a drink from their pond.
“The poor little guy was thirsty,” Jim says. “I couldn’t stand to watch that, so I put out one feeder. Before long they were swarming and fighting over that one, so I put out one more. That was where I drew the line.”
Jim says he might go as far as two feeders again this year, but even that is a stretch. Last year he went through 200 pounds of sugar. He is hoping others in the Cape Girardeau area take up the slack and put out nectar feeders of their own.
Only one species of hummingbird – the ruby-throated – is commonly seen in Missouri. They eat tiny insects for protein and other nutritional needs, but for their tremendous energy requirements they need high-octane food – sugary nectar from flowers or manmade substitutes. They consume about half their body weight of nectar daily. Helping them meet their energy needs is simple and yields big rewards in viewing enjoyment. Here are the Ainsworth’s recommendations for successful hummer feeding.
- Use a solution of one part sugar dissolved in four parts boiling water. Let the water cool before filling feeders.
- Do not add red food coloring or use commercially prepared solutions with red dye. A little red or yellow on the outside of the feeder is enough to draw in hummers. Colored solution won't attract more birds, and may even harm them.
- Empty and wash feeders at least once a week and refill them with fresh sugar water to prevent the growth of harmful germs.
- Put out feeders the first week in April in southern Missouri, a week or two later in central or northern Missouri.
The actual arrival date varies considerably from year to year and depends on weather. The Ainsworths have noticed a correlation between the appearance of the first yellow sulfur butterflies and the arrival of hummingbirds. The hummingbird migration map at hummingbirds.net/map.html allows hummer enthusiasts to report their first sightings of the year and track the migration through others’ reports. In mid-March of this year, the map showed the little birds had reached central Arkansas.
Some hummingbird feeding enthusiasts separate their feeders and keep them out of sight of each other to minimize fighting between birds. Others take the opposite approach, putting all their feeders in one place so one bird finds it difficult to defend all the feeders at once and learn to share.
Turf battles decrease in later summer and early autumn, when hummers' need for extra energy for migration partially overrides territoriality. In August and September, migrating hummingbirds gather by the dozens or even hundreds around reliable nectar sources. At that time of year, there may be four or five hummingbirds waiting their turn in trees and bushes for every bird at a feeder.
The Ainsworths and other serious hummingbird watchers keep their feeders out late into the fall. This provides food for birds that migrate late, as young or sick birds often do. Keeping feeders out late also increases your chances of seeing hummingbird species that are rare in Missouri, such as Anna's, green violet-eared, Costa's, broad-tailed, Allen's, and Calliope hummingbirds. This can occur as late as December.
For more information about hummingbirds, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/997.