Dallas, Texas


Spring and Summer Sensations

by David Hurt

Wild Birds Unlimited


Individually, hummingbirds are the smallest of all birds, and yet, with more than 320 species, they are the second largest family of birds in the world.  Except for coastal Texas where a few hummingbirds stay throughout winter, the vast majority of the hummingbirds that breed in Texas spend the offseason in Mexico and Central America.

In Dallas County and counties north and east, the common nesting hummingbird is the Ruby-throated.  If the lighting is right, males of the species have a ruby-red throat patch known as a gorget.  In Tarrant County, and counties south and west, the common nesting hummingbird is the Black-chinned.  Males have a amethyst-colored gorget.  Females and juveniles of the two species are hard to distinguish from each other, although it is said that Black-chins flick and pump their tails a lot more while hovering to feed.  There is a small area of overlap in range.  Both species are found in the escarpments of southwest Dallas County around Cedar Hill.

The first hummingbirds of the season arrive in late March, timing their northbound migration with the blooming of Coral Honeysuckle, Crossvine, Texas Buckeye and Scarlet Buckeye.  These woody plants make great additions to any garden geared toward attracting springtime hummers.

Hummers have long, brushy tongues which they use to lap nectar.  While hummingbirds are mostly thought of as nectivores, anyone who observes them carefully through binoculars will witness them catching tiny flying insects with their long, slender bills.

Occasionally in North Texas, hummers will nest in highly urban areas, although most choose territories that aren't so manicured.  It is up to the female anyway.  Hummingbirds do not pair off.  The female selects the territory, defends it against rival males and females, constructs the nest, incubates the eggs, feeds the babies and weans them all on her own, in a time span of about 8 weeks---May and June in our area.

To have the best chance of attracting breeding hummingbirds, offer a hummingbird feeder, cleaned and refilled with fresh nectar 2 to 3 times a week, and plant a number of spring-bloomers like those mentioned above, plus some smaller perennials like Texas Betony, Autumn Sage, Red Yucca, Wild Red Columbine and Cardinal Flower.  These plants and consistently maintained hummingbird feeder might entice a nesting female hummingbird, or at least a territorial male.

If you live in the country or next to a greenspace, you may not have to go to as much trouble to attract nesting hummers.  A simple hummingbird feeder might suffice.

Regardless of whether you live in the country or the city, and whether you attract nesting hummingbirds or not, one thing is certain, you will have provided many migrating hummingbirds an easy meal on their way to a suitable breeding territory, which may be as far north as Canada and Alaska.

While spring migration is fast an furious, fall migration is far more casual.  The same hummers may stay in your vicinity for weeks or even months before they depart in mid-October.  When the nesting season is complete, the fun begins.  Usually around July 4th, there is what scientists call a post-breeding season dispersal.  Youngsters are weaned, breeding territories are abandoned and the focus is on eating as much as they can so they can molt their feathers and put on weight for migration back south.

Summer time is hummer time and almost all who try to attract hummers in the summer are successful.  No garden should be without Flame Acanthus, Turk's Cap, Trumpet Creeper, Anise Sage (Salvia guaranitica---electric blue is our favorite), Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii), Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea), Big Red Sage (Salvia penstemonoides), Mexican Honeysuckle, Wild Cannas (not cultivated varieties), Lantana urticoides, Lantana camara  and Cypress Vine.  Sunlight and water requirements differ for these plants.  Most are available at your locally owned garden center.

Summer is also the time to increase from one hummingbird feeder to several, preferably ones that are really easy to clean.  We like the saucer-shaped ones that don't drip, are dishwasher-safe and have built-in ant moats.  If you live in the country and you plant and irrigate your hummingbird garden, you could easily have a dozen hummingbirds fighting over each feeder you put out.  Through July and August, you will notice a buildup of hummingbirds, as breeding territories are abandoned, juveniles are weaned and hummers from up north make their way south.  The number peaks around September 10 in North Texas.  The numbers at feeders are staggering in really dry years.

Those in urban areas will see the same increase but remember that more people are feeding the birds so there is less competition between hummingbirds.  Half a dozen hummers visiting your urban landscape at any one time would be exceptional.  It is a good idea to put your feeders in the same location every year.  You will be surprised when you forget to put your feeder out and your hummers will be going up and down the chain or hook, looking for the feeder that was there in previous years.  Most of us put out multiple feeders during this time and we VISUALLY SEPARATE them so that one hummingbird cannot dominate 2 or 3 feeders at one time.

Using a feeder that is easy to clean seems to keep people interested in feeding hummingbirds.  The more decorative the feeder, the more pieces to clean, the less likely  it will be cared for properly.  Hummingbird nectar is easy to make at home.  Use 1 part table sugar to 4 parts water.  Some people like to boil the water, but it is not essential.  What is essential is that the nectar be changed AT LEAST TWICE A WEEK, and more often if the feeder gets full sun.  Nectar from flowers is clear, so red food coloring is not necessary.  Some say it may be harmful in the high volume the hummers consume.

Leave your feeder in place from late March through late October.  Offer multiple feeders from July through September.  We've all heard that feeding hummingbirds in the fall will keep them from migrating.  It is just not true.  Hummingbirds, like most migratory birds, migrate based on the length of the day.  As the days get longer, the hummers go north; as the days get shorter, the hummers go south.  The length of the day is in a pattern that is stable and the hummingbird's internal clock can rely on it.  Weather and food supply are far too variable.

You can take your hummingbird feeder down in October, when I haven't seen a hummer for a week.  Have some fall blooming plants like Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha), Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans), Mountain Sage (Salvia regla) and Giant Cigar Plant (Cuphea micropetala) for the stragglers.  Hummingbirds add another dimension to a garden that you won't want to miss.

David Hurt and his wife Kim have have owned Wild Birds Unlimited for 17 years.  They are in a new location at 4719 W. Lovers Lane in Dallas, between Inwood Road and Celebration Restaurant.  www.dallas.wbu.com.  David and Kim are active participants in the National Audubon Society and they started the Audubon Center at Dogwood Canyon in Cedar Hill.