Out My Backdoor: The First Day of Spring

By Terry W. Johnson

A quick glance at the calendar tells us that the official first day of spring is March 20. However, I have found that Georgians don’t always agree with that.

If you are a turkey hunter, for example, you might feel that spring commences on March 24, opening day of the 2012 turkey hunting season. However, if you are a dedicated backyard wildlife watcher, the big day can’t be found printed on a calendar or in a hunting regulation guide. This is because it varies from county to county and backyard to backyard.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Terry W. Johnson)For these thousands of dedicated wildlife enthusiasts, spring begins with the arrival of the first ruby-throated hummingbird of the year.

I know scores of folks that religiously keep records of when they spot their first hummingbird. Consequently, they have a pretty good idea when the first bird is likely to show up. However, even they are surprised when the first hummer magically appears.

Homeowners living in South Georgia are apt to see rubythroats around March 11. Those of us living in middle Georgia can expect the first arrivals around March 21. The earliest that I personally have seen one at my Monroe County home is March 18. If you live in the northern portion of Georgia you may not see a ruby-throated hummingbird until the first of April. However, it has been my experience that, regardless of where you live in the state, most people don’t see their first hummingbird of the new year until the first two weeks of April.

Invariably, these celebrity guests arrive without any fanfare. In fact, hummingbirds have an uncanny way of appearing when we least expect it. We may take a glance out the window as we walk through the kitchen en route to the laundry room and see a hummer drinking at a feeder hung outside the window in front of the kitchen sink. Or, we may be simply playing with our children in the backyard when one of them suddenly stops and points at a feeder and loudly proclaims, “Look at that! It’s a hummingbird!”

In the minds of hummingbird fanciers, the worst thing that can happen is to spot a hummer hovering at the exact spot where a feeder hung last year. Your heart sinks when you gaze upon a tired, hungry tiny bird that has traveled hundreds of miles to return to your backyard only to find that you don’t have any food ready for it. Talk about feeling like a heel!

I know people who go to great lengths to attract the first hummingbirds of the year. Some hang strips of red flagging on the leafless bushes and trees in their backyard. Others will hang half a dozen or more feeders around their homes. Why, I even heard of a man who placed a red traffic marker atop his house in hopes that it would enhance his chances of luring a rubythroat to his backyard. All I can say is that he must have a very understanding wife.

These folks’ strategy is simple. Since hummingbirds have an affinity to red and possess the equivalent of 8X vision, enabling them to see a feeder up to three-fourths of a mile away, the more red objects that festoon yards early in the spring, the better the chances that a migrating hummingbird spots those yards and flies down to investigate. Once there, the bird will find feeders stocked with nectar and stay a while.

Do these techniques work? Who knows? I don’t, however, I’m certain they can’t hurt unless you fall off a ladder while trying to haul a traffic marker up to the roof.

But, the most practical way to attract early migrants is hang one or more feeders around your yard. Each feeder should be half-full of sugar water. There is no need to fill each feeder to the brim. Few hummers will be using your feeders at this time of the year. As a result the birds that do find your yard will consume small amounts of food. The excess amount of food will simply be wasted. If you make your own nectar, prepare it by mixing 1 part of sugar with 4 parts water. Heat the concoction at a rapid boil for two to three minutes.

It is always a good idea to have a number of nectar-producing plants in full bloom around your yard. This year when the hummingbirds return they will find conditions quite different than they have seen in the past. Our unseasonably warm winter has coaxed many flowering plants to bloom much earlier than normal. As a result, the blooming period of some of these plants will have already passed when the birds arrive.

However, plants that wouldn’t normally be blooming when the birds first arrive may be in full bloom. Many of the early bloomers, such as daffodil, crocus, forsythia and Bradford pear, don’t produce an abundance of nectar. Instead, the first hummingbirds to appear visit yellow jasmine, redbud, flowering crabapples and even tiny henbit. How all of this will affect the amount of food available to the first hummingbirds of the year remains to be seen.

Fortunately for the birds, one of their main sources of food will be abundant. Hummingbirds as well as a number of other animals feed on the sap that wells up in tiny reservoirs pecked in the bark of apple, plum, pear, oak and other trees by an unusual woodpecker named the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This bird is a winter resident in the Peach State. The woodpecker returns to these sap-filled cavities and licks up the sweet fluid with a strange brush-like appendage on the tip of its tongue.

The first hummingbirds to arrive are adult males. They are also the first to leave in the summer. They will be followed in a week or so by the females. However, if you don’t see your first hummingbird until sometime in April, the first rubythroat you spy may be a female. This is because by this time of year both males and females will be common throughout the state.

If you haven’t hung out a hummingbird feeder yet, don’t procrastinate any longer – put one up as soon as possible. Then keep your eye peeled for the bird that heralds the beginning of spring in your backyard.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact rick.lavender@dnr.state.ga.us.) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network, at http://tern.homestead.com.