It feels like I am sitting in the middle of a swarm of very large bees. The buzzing is louder than you could ever imagine, interspersed with a series of angry squeaks and twitters. Every so often, a miniature fighter jet zooms past by my ear, and I feel the gust of a micro-breeze. I am besieged by hummingbirds.
I have had hummingbird visitors every summer since I moved here 10 years ago, but the population has soared in the past 2 years. I have discovered that the more feeders you hang up, the more hummers will come.
Both male and female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are very territorial, and don't like to share their food source. One dominant male bird will monopolize a feeder, driving all his competitors away. For years, with only one feeder, I saw only a few hummingbirds. Greedy thing that I am, I wanted more.
I tried multiple feeders, separated by both distance and a visual barrier - one on the back side of the house, one on the front deck, one in a tree. I had more birds this way, as evidenced by the depleted feeders and the increased need for syrup, but I couldn't see them. I am only one person - I could only watch one feeder at a time. My hunger for hummers was not satiated.
Last summer, I hung two feeders on the front deck and one outside my bathroom window (my best bird-watching window; it looks out on all my winter feeding stations and my purple martin housing.) I had more hummingbirds than ever before. I felt like an explorer, discovering uncharted territory.
This April, at the New River Gorge Birding and Nature Festival, in West Virginia, I met Bill Hilton, of Hilton Pond. Bill is Mr. Ruby-throated Hummingbird himself. I had never met anyone so dedicated to the care and feeding of hummers. Bill not only educates people about hummingbirds, he bands them. (What a skill!)
One of Bill's tips was to put up several feeders in one location, on the theory that one bird cannot protect many feeders. If the resources are so great, there is no need to protect one little piece of turf, so more hummers can feed in peace. In the July/August issue of Bird Watcher's Digest, (the one with a painting of a phoebe by our favorite artist) there is an article by Bill Thompson, III (Bill of the Birds) with the same advice. Was it coincidence or did the two Bills have a chat?
I was convinced, and it worked! I currently have 4 (sometimes 5) nectar feeders hung from the gazebo of my front deck, plus one feeder at the bathroom window. Every day, I take down, clean, and refill at least two of them, and I make syrup two or three times weekly, storing the excess in the fridge till it is needed. I am going through a gallon of sugar solution a week (maybe more) and started buying sugar in 10 lb bags. Sitting on my deck in the morning or evening, I can count 15 hummers in view at once, but I know there are several more in the red maple, flying over the house or through the yard, and visiting the backyard feeder. A rule of thumb to estimate the total number of hummingbirds you have is to count the number of individuals you see at one time and multiply times 3. At this rate, I can easily guess my population to be 50 or more Ruby-throats living and working in my yard.
I am watching my hummers more closely as the season winds down. For one thing, I am having trouble with their gender. The adult male is unmistakable, with his red gorget and notched tail, but the juvenile males are hard to distinguish from the females. Both have rounded, white tipped tail feathers, and if I don't pick up on the faint streaking in the throat, I have a hard time telling the young boys from the girls.
I'm also studying all these hummers with an eye toward finding a rarity. While Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the only species which lives and breeds in Ohio, Rufous Hummingbirds are becoming more common in fall migration. Now that my numbers are up, I'd love to have a new species of hummer visit me. I'm still greedy when it comes to these tiny birds.