Hummingbirds and Hummingbird Feeders
by Chris Uhtoff
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Hummingbirds are almost a magical presence in the garden, like the famous pixie Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. The unusual humming sound of their wings, as they beat up to 200 times per second signals their presence. Often you only catch a glimpse of them as they flash from one area of the yard to the other. If you are one of the many who have not experienced the magic of a hummingbird, don’t worry, hummingbirds can easily be attracted to your yard by providing their basic habitat needs. Variety is the key word. By offering more choices, you increase the chances that a hummingbird will find your yard attractive and will come visit.
The basic needs of hummingbirds include food, water and cover. Hummingbirds are nectar drinking and insect eating birds. Nectar sources can be provided either in feeders or by planting nectar producing flowers. Hummingbird feeders are a great way to provide food to these exciting birds where you can easily observe them. Feeders come in a wide variety of styles. It is important to choose a feeder that can be cleaned easily. The sugar-water solution is highly susceptible to mold, harmful bacteria, or fermentation. If you this occurs, you may be risking the health of your hummer visitors. Before you consider putting one out You must be willing to monitor and clean your feeders. Feeders should be cleaned out at least every five days, more often when the temperature is above 80°F. If you see any discoloration in the water they should be cleaned immediately.
When considering a hummingbird feeder look for one that is easy to clean. Saucer style feeders like the Humzinger from Aspects or the Happy 8 from Droll Yankee can be opened completely and can even be put in the dishwasher. With other feeders make sure the base comes apart for complete cleaning. A port brush is great to have on hand for cleaning. Use the same cleaning standards you would for your own utensils.
Choose a feeder with a leak-proof design. leaking feeders can attract ants and bees. Saucer style feeders would only leak if tipped up far on their side. In some bottle feeders such as the Best 1, Schrodt Designs, and others the opening to the bottle is submerged below the feeding area so the water pressure keeps the nectar from leaking or rising above a certain point. These two styles have been the most leak free we have found. Feeders which work by a vacuum can be problematic. In hot weather the airspace created when the nectar level goes down heats and expands which pushes nectar out. The key with these feeders is to make sure the feeder is absolutely filled to the top and there are no air bubbles to weaken the vacuum. The manufacturers of these feeders assure us this will keep leakage to a minimum however they are not feeders we can recommend.
Realistically consider how much capacity you need. Since you will be cleaning and refilling the feeder every four or five days it makes sense to have a feeder that only holds what will be used in that time. Often 12 ounces is enough for one or two hummers.
Perches, while not necessary are appreciated by hummingbirds for resting and give the observer a chance to get a better look at these magnificent birds. If your feeder does not have a perch, attach cut branches nearby or place the feeder near natural perches.
Next look at how sturdy the feeders are, could they withstand a slight fall and would they hold up to repeated and energetic cleanings? Finally Feeders should have some bright red or purple on them; this mimics their favorite flowers.
The flowers hummingbirds search for have adapted to attract birds or insects, which in turn carry pollen from plant to plant for their nectar reward. The nectar is composed primarily of the sugar Sucrose, the same form as white table sugar. The Standard recipe for making hummingbird nectar is to add one part white sugar to four parts hot or boiling water. Boiling water mixes the sugar better and inhibits mold growth. You can make up a large batch and freeze what you will not use in 7-8 days because even if refrigerated, sugar solution will begin to spoil in about 14 days. Do not use honey. Honey is composed largely of dextrose and while dextrose is easily consumeable, honey also contains large amounts of laevulose which takes more time and energy to digest. The greatest danger to hummingbirds from honey is that when honey ferments it contains a mold with botulism toxins that are fatal to hummers. Brown sugar does not as closely resemble plant nectar as does white table sugar. The 1:4 sugar ratio occurs in nature with some plants having as high as a 1:2 ratio. Weaker solutions may not be healthy for hummingbirds because of the energy they have to expend feeding and the extra work on their kidneys getting rid of the excess water. When feeding hummers in winter months a 1:3 ratio may be better both for the energy needs of hummers and that the richer solution resists freezing better. Never use red food coloring, it contains no nutritional value and any negative health effects of these chemicals could be magnified with the hummers tiny physiology. Most hummingbird feeders contain plenty of red on them anyway.
Hummingbirds will not initially come to a feeder they can’t see. So visibility and color are key. To attract hummers to your new feeder put it out in the open, preferably underneath a bright red sunshade. You can make your own out of plastic plate or other material, Erva Manufacturing makes a red metal sunshade with a built in ant guard that should last forever. Shading is useful as it prevents rapid spoilage and gives hummers a break from the heat. Hummingbirds will be more attracted to your feeder if they are placed near real or even artificial red flowers. You can also hang red ribbons nearby to attract passing birds.
Choose a location which will be safe for hummers to feed. Hummingbirds like to see around them on at least three sides and a location which offers protection from above. If cats are a problem put the feeder above 6’, away from a cats leap.
Sugar ants and bees can be a problem. The best solution for bees is a bee resistant (and leak-proof ) feeder where the nectar sits far enough below the feeding ports that insects cannot reach. If saucer feeders are over-filled bees may be able reach until the level goes down. Perky pet makes bee guards to place over the feeding tubes on their feeders and these will work on some other feeding tubes as well. However these vacum style feeders usually always have a little leakage which will still attract bees. If this tube feeder is a family heirloom you can use commercial wasp traps or even make your own by putting out a jar with food and having a only a hole in the top. Ants will only be a problem if they find the feeder, perhaps as a result of leakage. There are wide variety of effective ant guards which hold Vaseline or water to prevent ants from crawling down hangars or string. Or you can make your own with a double sided hooks and a plastic cup. You can also coat the hangars with Vaseline or oil. With window feeders you can coat the area around where the suction cups attach with Vaseline.
The most common question we receive is when to put up and take down Hummingbird feeders. Here in Southern Oregon some hummingbirds return by mid-March so many people put feeders out in early march, generally about a week before Hummingbirds expected return. This timetable varies widely with region. Consult a regional bird book or bird distribution pamphlet for your area.
You should take your feeder down two weeks after you’ve last seen a hummingbird using it in the fall. This gives late migrating hummingbirds a chance to fill up for their long trip south. A source of nectar is not enough to induce a hummingbird to risk over-wintering. In southern Oregon this falls in mid November, but this varies by region. However on the west coast, male Annas hummingbirds naturally over winter as far north as Vancouver Island, Canada. These birds subsist largely on insects and some Hummingbird feeders. They utilize a brief hibernation state called torpor for the worst conditions. For this species the reproductive advantage, of establishing the best territories is worth it even though a few might not survive the winter.
To complicate matters western hummingbirds have been regularly occurring in the S and SE of the US - where there are enough insects and nectar sources to allow them to survive. Many people in areas with over wintering birds are choosing to keep feeders filled all winter. However keeping feeders all winter does entail greater commitment. In winter, you must reliably keep the feeder filled because having to search for a new food source is a hardship. To prevent freezing both during the day and night you can place the feeder near an always on light bulb, perhaps sheltered in a box for added protection, or bring the feeder in each night to defrost.
Whenever you are trying make your yard more attractive to hummers or any bird you need to consider the availability of water, in summer this is particularly important. While hummingbirds get most of their drinking water from the sugar nectar they do need places to bathe and will use bird baths. Try providing different depths in a bird bath by using flat rocks to create shallow areas. Birds cannot use baths deeper than 21/2 inches. Sprinklers and misters can be used as a ’fly through’ bath hummers will also bathe in the leaves wet from a mister.
Hummingbirds are not the only birds attracted to sugar water. Some 50 species of birds have been observed drinking sugar water; Orioles, Tanagers and Woodpeckers are the most common. This is where that leaky vacuum feeder or chick waterer can come in handy because the nectar is easy to access for birds with larger bills. A few companies notably Aspects and Perky Pet make oriole feeders with larger feeder ports or you can enlarge the holes on existing feeders. Many people report that they have the best results feeding orioles grape jelly, and fruits, oranges are one of their favorites. Grape jelly can be put out in a small container or stable bowl that allows perching.
While bird feeders are a great way to see wildlife up close the foundation for a wildlife friendly yard is the assortment of plants in the yard for both shelter and food. Try to use native plants whenever possible. While non native plants can provide a great deal of nectar and other food they do not support the population of insects which have evolved along with them in their native habitat. A good source of insects is critical for nesting birds to feed their young.
When planting observe the heights and structures of plants in the wild. Birds utilize a variety of heights. For the widest variety of birds try to create an under story, mid story and over story. Grouping plants closely is usually better because this provides more shelter. Try to include a mix of plants that keep leaves on during winter for winter roosting sites.
We hope this helps get you started enjoying the flying jewels that are hummingbirds. For further reading a favorite source or ours is The Wildlife Gardener’s guide to Hummingbirds and Songbirds from the Tropics By Susan Day, Ron Rovensek, and Jack Griggs. From Harper Collins publisher. It is part of their series which is sponsored in by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Our Hummingbird Feeders
Our Hummingbird Feeder Accessories