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When the Hummingbirds Return to Southern Ontario

May 13, 2012

My recommendation (for those of you looking for the ‘quick answer’ to when hummingbirds return to southern Ontario) is to put your feeders up no later than May 1 (in any year) to catch the ‘early birds’, and take them down no sooner than October 1 (for late departures). Always change the ‘nectar’ (1/4 cup of sugar to 1 cup of water; you don’t need to buy fancy mixes and you should never add colouring – it can be toxic to the birds) every couple of days (once the birds start feeding, you may need to replace the food more regularly). Then sit back and enjoy!

2020: it’s been an usually cool spring here in southern Ontario; however, the gardens are progressing well and earlier than the last two years. We had our first hummingbird arrive on May 3rd (a male). His presence tells me spring is finally HERE!

San Juan Capistrano Mission

San Juan Capistrano Mission

It is fairly well known that on March 19th each year, the swallows return from their winter home in Argentina to build their nests and raise their young at the Mission San Juan Capistrano in California.  I was fortunate enough to be there with my family one year (in the early ’90s) to witness this marvelous event (for the full story about the swallows’ return to Capistrano, visit the Mission web site).

Closer to home, I look forward each year to the return of the ruby-throated hummingbirds every Mother’s Day. Unlike the swallows of Capistrano, the hummingbirds don’t return on precisely the same day each year; however, it has always been a tradition in my house (as begun by my late mother) that the hummingbird feeder is filled and hung no later than Mother’s Day (this year [2012], due to an unseasonably warm March, the birds’ migration took place a full month early, and while many of us put our feeders out in April, there has been some concern expressed by ornithologists that the lack of flowers for them to feed on, combined with a return to colder temperatures in April, may have put many of the tiny birds at risk. Right now, we’re in ‘wait and see’ mode). 2016 Update: The feeder has been up for nearly a week; the first visitor arrived on Monday, May 9 (the day after Mother’s Day) and, obviously tired from the long journey, stayed for quite a long time! 

Hummingbird FeederI hang my feeder (containing a 4:1 mix of water and sugar; you should NOT colour the water or use honey or any other sweeteners – the bright colour of the feeder alone is enough to allow these inquisitive little birds to find it) from a hook above my rear deck and spend a good deal of time watching the birds swoop in, eat (hummingbirds typically feed 5 to 10 times per hour for anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds per visit; when a female is feeding her young, she will visit the feeder even more frequently).  Occasionally one will rest and groom for a few minutes on any of several nearby dead branches and I get to get a close up look (through my binoculars) at one of nature’s most marvelous creatures.

Female Ruby Throated HummingbirdFor the past few years, I’ve had two ‘regular’ visitors to my feeder, with distinct personalities.  One is quite ‘cheeky’ and doesn’t seem to care how many people are on the deck, or how close they are to the feeder; she comes, feeds, leaves repeatedly. The other is a little more nervous and prefers to hover while she eats (vs. alighting on the feeder’s perches), and she won’t stay if we don’t remain perfectly still.  So far I haven’t spotted any males at the feeder but I imagine they are nearby (male ruby-throats [see image below] are smaller and far more colourful than the females [seen to the left]; they play no part in the raising of the young).

You might think something that small (a ruby-throated hummingbird is about 3.5” long from bill tip to tail, and weighs no more than a nickel) would be difficult to spot. However, they make a distinct chirping noise when they are flying nearby, and the hum of their rapidly beating wings is loud enough to announce their approach.

Hummingbird NestTypically the birds arrive in early May and the female builds her nest nearby (nests are built from plant material held together with spider’s webs, covered in moss, and lined with plant down; the nest is no more than 2½” high and 1½” deep ). She lays two eggs (each about the size of a pea) and incubates them for up to 18 days; three weeks later the chicks are ready to leave the nest (in the meanwhile, Mom feeds them regurgitated nectar and small insects that she’s collected non-stop throughout the day).

Hummingbirds can hover in mid-air by flapping their wings up to 80 times per second, are able to conserve energy (when sleeping, during a cold snap, or when food is scarce) by going in a state of torpor (slowing their metabolic rate to 1/15th of normal), and are the only group of birds that can fly backwards. Their heart beats at up to 1,200 times per minute (while flying) and their flying muscles make up 25% of their weight; they need 10 calories of nectar per day to survive.

Male Ruby Throated HummingbirdOn average a hummingbird lives no more than three years but during that time they travel almost 10,000 miles – going 2,500 miles or more to Mexico or Central American each winter (generally covering about 20 miles a day over land, and almost 500 miles [20 days] non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico) and back in the spring.  Quite a feat for something so very, very small.

Today is Mother’s Day and my feeder has been up (and refreshed frequently) for almost a month now. And while I haven’t had any visitors yet, I’m hopeful that these delightful little birds will soon be back to take advantage of the ‘free’ nectar available (when Mom is feeding babies, the level in the feeder can go down as much as 2” per day!)  I’m glad I have the time (and the patience) to sit and wait and watch for them – it’s just another advantage of being on … the other side of 55.

Hummingbird Quote

  1. May 14, 2012 11:56 pm

    cool feeder!

    I feed leftovers to crows and sparrows through my kitchen window.

    One day, a crow just sat on my window sill and would not go despite my halfhearted hand waving.

    so I fed it.

    Naturally they absolutely refuse to leave now.

    • May 15, 2012 6:32 am

      I used to have ‘regular’ bird feeder, too, but it made an awful mess in the yard (especially when the squirrels got into it), so I stopped putting it out. I still feed the squirrels leftover bread once in a while (and peanuts in the winter).


  2. Cathy permalink
    May 13, 2012 10:36 pm

    That was lovely Margo. I hope you get to see some hummingbirds very soon.

  3. May 13, 2012 7:45 pm

    We have exactly one of those feeders hanging from a tree in our back yard at the farm. A colleague gave me a beautiful glass blown feeder, but you’re right the orange classic attracts more. They are fascinating creatures…wish I could get a good picture of them. I didn’t realize the swallows came from Argentina!

    • May 14, 2012 10:25 am

      I tried one of the hand blown glass ones a couple of years ago and the d*** squirrels knocked it out of the tree and it smashed all over the yard. Sigh! Now I stick with the plastic ones.


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