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LBL Wildlife Report: It's Hummingbird Season

Ruby-throated hummingbird
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August is Hummingbird Month at the Woodlands Nature Station in Land Between the Lakes.

In the next installment of the LBL Wildlife Report, Tracy Ross and John Pollpeter discuss the Ruby-throated hummingbird and why August is considered Hummingbird Month at the Woodlands Nature Station.

The Ruby-throated hummingbird has developed a pseudo-cult following in the states, which Pollpeter attributes to several factors. "It's the smallest bird we have in North America; it's so fascinating. But it's also a bird that doesn't mind being around humans."

The development of digital photography also contributed to hummingbirds' rising popularity, Pollpeter explains. "With [hummingbirds] being able to flap their wings 80 times per second—and that's just in normal flight, it's 200 times per second when a male is doing his courtship dance—you need some pretty fast cameras."

Hummingbirds' ability to flap their wings in a double figure-8 pattern an astounding 80 to 200 times per second is due to their ultra-light frame. "Hummingbirds are generally built light. About 90% of them can not walk; they can only perch. So, they had to give up some of their muscle capabilities to be a little bit lighter. Like all birds, they don't have teeth or tailbones. All their bones are hollow."

Most birds stay aloft using a single figure-8 pattern. Hummingbirds' unique double figure-8, Pollpeter adds, allows them to hover over flowers and fly upside down or backward.

"This is a bird that migrates," Pollpeter continues. "They only weigh two to three grams when they get here to Kentucky. By the time they're going to migrate down to the Yucatan Peninsular in Central America, they have to gain about half that bodyweight just in fat."

"One of the misnomers about hummingbirds is they only drink nectar or sugar water. 80% of their diet is eating insects. Mosquitoes, gnats, midges, flies, little spiders. Those are all important parts of its diet. For the most part, a hummingbird is an insectivore. It can't build its body or raise its young on sugar water."

Though, these birds do enjoy their fair share of sugar water. To attract hummingbirds to your yard, Pollpeter recommends using a glass feeder and adding a homemade mixture of four parts water to one part white sugar.

He advises against using any mixtures that include red food coloring. "We've found that the hummingbirds can't digest red food coloring very well. It goes straight through their system, causes damage to their little kidneys, and causes premature death." Premade hummingbird food with added vitamins and minerals can also be harmful to the birds.

"The sugar water will ferment easily," Pollpeter says. "We recommend, especially in this hot time of year, that you change the sugar water every two to three days. If you don't think you can do that, then fill up that feeder, and let the hummingbirds drain it out. If it gets cloudy or you see black mold growing on it, definitely clean it out. Don't use any kind of cleaning products like bleach or soap; just give it a good hot rinse."

In addition to being extraordinarily built and comfortable around humans, Pollpeter says that the Nature Station "tries to use the hummingbird for educational purposes. It reaches out to so many different audiences and reaches into so many different topics, like habitat and how to track backyard wildlife or even climate change. We're able to educate the public on these larger issues by using [hummingbirds] as the big focus."

August is Hummingbird Month at the Woodlands Nature Station. Every year, the station offers special themed programming, photography contests, and more to celebrate these birds' annual migration to Central America.

"They stop at the Nature Station because we're kind of like the McDonald's on the interstate. We offer good, cheap food. We'll get close to 200, 250 hummingbirds a day."

"If you have any questions about what to plant for hummingbirds, you can always call us at the Nature Station. We'd be glad to give you a list. We often have a number of native plant sales. These are plants that the hummingbirds are accustomed to. They know what they are; they know what they provide, and they're good for them. And they're good for the environment as well," Pollpeter concludes.

The Woodlands Nature Station hosts the 2021 Hummingbird Festival this Saturday, August 7th, and Sunday, August 8th. A full programming schedule can be found on the station's Facebook event page.

The station also hosts a Hummingbird Photography Contest now through September 1st. This Google Doc has more information, including submission guidelines.

Read past LBL Wildlife Reports here.

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