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Hummingbirds signal spring in Oklahoma. Here’s how to welcome them

A ruby-throated hummingbird hovering near a feeder that contains red sugar water.
Tina Nord
A ruby-throated hummingbird

Birders are heralding the arrival of ruby-throated and black-chinned hummingbirds in Oklahoma. But they’re not the only birds back in town for spring.

They spend their winters in Central America and fly up each spring to nest. Tim O’Connell, an ornithologist at Oklahoma State University, said these tiny beacons of spring are flying all the way across the Gulf of Mexico every night for the next couple of weeks.

“There are hummingbirds piled up tonight on the Yucatan Peninsula,” O’Connell said. “As soon as the sun goes down there, they're going to take off and start heading across the Gulf of Mexico. And tomorrow afternoon sometime they're going to make landfall.”

These tiny birds weigh less than a nickel, but they make the journey at 40 mph in one straight shot.

“They can't glide or anything like that,” O’Connell said. “They've got to do that sort of humming and flapping their wings super fast the whole way. It's really incredible.”

After they’ve weathered the gulf, avoiding the maws of gulls and tiger sharks, some of those hummingbirds will make their way to Oklahoma.

Birders as far north as Tulsa have spotted ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are commonly found in the eastern half of the state throughout the spring and summer. Lawton residents report the arrival of black-chinned hummingbirds, whose range just barely covers Oklahoma’s southwestern corner.

O’Connell said the birds bring with them a feeling of hope and renewal.

“You've lived through a long, hard, dark, cold winter, and suddenly you get these like little feathered jewels that show up,” O’Connell said. “I think that's a huge part of what people really love about birding in the spring is just that, oh, the world, it's going to be okay.”

Hummingbirds drink the sugarwater people leave out for them—Tulsa Audubon Society recommends a mixture that’s one parts sugar to four parts water—but their natural diet is nectar and insects.

If you want to welcome the hummingbirds to Oklahoma, O’Connell says the best ways are to cultivate those food sources where you can. He particularly recommended trumpet creeper, which forms a vine of long, tubular flowers.

Native plants provide nectar directly to hummingbirds, but they also attract insects that form another crucial part of their diet and lifestyle. Hummingbirds not only enjoy eating bugs and spiders; they also use spiderwebs to build their tiny but strong nests, which are about the size of half a walnut. Limiting pesticide use can also help maintain a snack stash of insects, O’Connell said.

“They usually have two eggs in there, and the eggs are like as big as a pea,” O’Connell said. “Everything about them is so diminutive, and it's just fascinating to watch them work.”

A fuzzy baby bird glares from a next of twigs. It's white with big round eyes and a black beak.
Fidel Atuo
A Mississippi kite nestling

But hummingbirds aren’t the only birds to watch and listen for this time of year. Right now, many species of birds are moving to or through Oklahoma on their spring migrations—tracking data suggests 1.1 million birds flew over Payne County on Monday night.

O’Connell recommended people use a free app named Merlin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which uses artificial intelligence to help people identify birdsongs they’re hearing.

Some particular visitors to keep an eye out for right now include blue-gray gnatcatchers, Mississippi kites, western kingbirds and goldfinches, and Oklahoma’s state bird, the scissortail flycatcher.

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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