Hummingbirds are migrating back to Pennsylvania. When to spot them, set up your feeder

Spring-like temperatures have routinely swept across Pennsylvania for much of February and March, but the official start of the season is still a few days away. Soon enough, the commonwealth’s landscape will be decorated with colorful blooms, chirping birds and plenty of pollen.

One of the greatest joys of spring for many comes from wildlife, which livens up Pennsylvania’s outdoors each year. Perhaps no sight is more beloved than fast-flying hummingbirds visiting your feeders as they migrate north.

Here’s what you need to know as hummingbirds get set to return to Pennsylvania.

When will hummingbirds appear in Pennsylvania?

While many kinds of hummingbirds migrate throughout the U.S. each year, no species is more common in eastern states than the ruby-throated hummingbird, which doubles as Pennsylvania’s smallest bird.

More than 330 species of hummingbirds live in North and South America, but just about 16 species are regularly spotted in the U.S., according to Penn State Extension, a university organization dedicated to providing science-based information and educational materials. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species found primarily east of the Mississippi River.

Hummingbirds typically begin migrating in late January and gradually make their way north after spending the winter in Central America and Mexico. While the trip is long, hummingbirds can migrate quickly thanks to their hearts and wings that respectively beat up to 1,260 times per minute and flap between 15 and 80 times per second. Research indicates some hummingbirds can travel as far as 23 miles each day when migrating.

Hummingbird Central expects ruby-throated hummingbirds to begin appearing in southern Pennsylvania around mid-April, though early arrivals could be spotted by the beginning of the month.

This interactive map, fueled by spottings reported by Hummingbird Central readers, charts their migration throughout the U.S. The graphic is expected to receive gradual updates throughout the year.

Pennsylvania residents who hope to attract hummingbirds should get prepared as soon as possible this spring to ensure the fast-flapping friends don’t gloss over their feeders.

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Best practices for your hummingbird feeder

The best and perhaps the most simple way to attract hummingbirds to your home is through the installation and maintenance of a feeder.

Penn State Extension experts recommend placing your feeder outside once flowers first start to come up each year. You can leave yours out throughout the spring, summer and early fall until the hummingbirds migrate south again.

Red-colored feeders are suggested since they attract hummingbirds, who are thought to associate red flowers with high-quality nectar, according to the National Audubon Society. Nectar provided by feeders acts as a supplemental source for hummingbirds when blooming flowers are not available.

Special food is not required for your feeder. Instead, experts recommend filling your feeder with a 1 to 4 solution of refined white sugar to tap water (or a quarter cup of sugar in one cup of water, for example). After mixing, bring the solution to a boil and let it cool before filling your feeder. If you make a bigger batch, refrigerate the extra solution and make sure to bring it up to room temperature before you re-fill your feeder, the National Audubon Society advises.

It’s important to skip artificial sweeteners, honey and brown sugar in your nectar mix, as additional ingredients can harm the birds. Food coloring and store-bought solutions can also cause adverse effects and should be avoided.

Penn State Extension recommends replacing your feeder’s sugar solution at least once every five days to ensure your nectar does not spoil. Be sure to clean the feeder before adding a new supply. Cleaning is best done by washing the feeder with soap or using a weak bleach solution to sterilize it. Vinegar is a fine cleaning medium, but be sure to rinse thoroughly with hot water to make sure it is fully removed after washing.

Feeders full of a sugar-based solution may attract other wildlife and insects, including bees, ants and wasps. If non-hummingbird visitors become a problem, experts say it may be wise to invest in a feeder with a “bee guard” on its openings, Such a device allows a hummingbird’s long bill to reach nectar without providing as direct an opening for other critters.

You could also consider using cooking oil, petroleum jelly or mineral oil on the outside of the feeder to help prevent insects from landing on surfaces or walking near openings, Penn State Extension says.

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Attracting hummingbirds to your home

While feeders are critical, homeowners can take other steps to attract hummingbirds to their homes. Common steps include planting a hummingbird-friendly garden and constructing perches for birds.

The National Audubon Society maintains an online plant database that can show which native plants near your home may help attract certain birds. Visit and enter your email address and zip code to browse.

The best options are generally those native to your area that have bright colors and produce ample amounts of nectar for hummingbirds, the organization says.

The following plants and flowers are recommended for attracting hummingbirds in Centre County, according to the database. Bold varieties are classified as perennials or annuals.

  • Harebell (campanula rotundifolia)

  • Butterfly milkweed (asclepias tuberosa)

  • Canadian lily (lilium canadense)

  • Cardinal flower (lobelia cardinalis)

  • Coralberry (symphoricarpos orbiculatus)

  • Fire pink (silene virginica)

  • Foxglove beard-tongue (penstemon digitalis)

  • Great blue lobelia (lobelia siphilitica)

  • Narrow-leaf fireweed (chamaenerion angustifolium)

  • Oswego tea (monarda fistulosa)

  • Pink azalea (rhododendron periclymenoides)

  • Red columbine (aquelegia canadensis)

  • Red elder (sambucus racemosa)

  • Scarlet beebalm (monardia didyma)

  • Spotted touch-me-not (impatiens capensis)

  • Trumpet creeper (campsis radicans)

  • Tuliptree (liriodendron tulipifera)

  • Turk’s-cap lily (lilium superbum)

  • White turtlehead (chelone glabra)

  • Wild blue phlox (phlox divaricata)

Planting the right varieties is key, but maintaining the garden throughout the year is perhaps equally important. Experts advise against the use of lawn chemicals that can threaten the insects hummingbirds feed upon.

Cultivating a hummingbird-friendly yard is key for those who hope to see the birds each year. Hummingbirds are said to have a strong memory and will often return to feeding stations each year if nectar is readily available, according to environmental site Journey North.

Spotting a ruby-throated hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbirds will flock to Pennsylvania this spring when they migrate north. Here’s what to look for.

Like most hummingbirds, ruby-throated hummingbirds are just about 3 or 4 inches long and weigh between just 0.1 and 0.2 ounces. They often display emerald or golden-green colors on their backs and crowns with gray or white underparts, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds sport a red, iridescent throat, but females lack red coloring completely.

A ruby-throated hummingbird attempts to drink nectar from a cardinal flower in Moberly, Missouri.
A ruby-throated hummingbird attempts to drink nectar from a cardinal flower in Moberly, Missouri.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds generally fly straight and fast, but can also stop instantly, hover and adjust positions with “exquisite control,” Cornell researchers say.

Throughout the year, ruby-throated hummingbirds generally live in open woodlands, including meadows, forest edges, grasslands, parks, gardens and backyards. Their nests are often located near water sources.