Care and Feeding of Hummingbirds

By Terrie Merritt

Dedicated hummingbird watchers know that these tiny migratory birds will soon return to their summertime breeding area. Depending on the area, the date of return ranges from mid-April to mid-May. One way to enhance your enjoyment of hummingbirds is to attract them to your yard with a hummingbird feeder.

Because hummer feeders are a fairly recent development in the long history of the hummingbird, the birds do not instinctively recognize them as a reliable food source and must learn to recognize your feeder as such a source. This learning is aided by their natural curiosity and by watching the actions of other hummingbirds. When one bird begins to use a feeder, others are pretty quick to recognize that something good is going on there. This may help to explain the preference of one feeder over another of a different style; it’s simply a matter of familiarity and the hummer may have decided to stick with a known thing. One way to assist the process when changing styles is to fill and hang the new feeder next to the old empty feeder until the hummer catches on to the new style. If we preferred a Whopper why would we look for a hamburger under a golden arch if we had never seen one – makes sense.

Placing a feeder in a new location may be aided by hanging red ribbons or red bows in the area of the feeder early in the season. Red is the color hummers see the best and they will be sure to investigate the flash of color. It’s comparable to the flashing “Eat Here” sign on diners! Having a small mister or shallow birdbath nearby will also draw them to bathe, a regular activity for hummingbirds. Window glass is one of the real dangers for hummingbirds in full flight. Feeders should be placed 15 feet from obstructions when hung. If you want your feeder closer to the window, it should be very close or even suction-cupped to the window so the bird is not tempted to fly around it and strike the glass.

It is quite normal for dominant male hummingbirds to chase other hummers from a feeder. Putting up a second feeder out of sight of the first feeder gives other hummers a chance to feed away from the bully. Where to hang the feeder can be a difficult decision in which one has to balance the habits and likes of the bird with the natural desire to observe them. A new (first time) feeder is best hung near a flower garden, flower pot, or window box as that is one of the first places a hummer will check for food. Just as we recognize pizza, they know flowers. Once discovered as a food source, a feeder can be moved to a more viewable location in increments, taking care to maintain a feeder and hummer friendly environment.

Eventually a feeder can be placed very close to a window or a patio/deck and the hummers will continue to come. They are pretty fearless and learn quickly that the mere presence of humans is not a danger.

Some additional considerations are predators, sunlight, nearby cover, and animal pests. As fast as a hummer is, it is still vulnerable to predators. Probably the most common is the family cat. Though it would seem the cat could never catch a hummer, it does happen. Only the Calliope is known to regularly feed within 5′ of the ground anyway. Keep this in mind when placing your feeder. Related is the animal pest, more a danger to the feeder than the bird but a real danger nonetheless.

Direct sunlight is the enemy of your nectar. Sugar water ferments very quickly as the temperature goes up and it goes up fast in an exposed feeder container. Nectar also molds. Fermentation is seen in the feeder as cloudiness; mold forms ugly black spots in the mixture or on the sides of the container. In either case, the birds quickly recognize an unpalatable, and possibly dangerous, mixture and will abandon that feeder for sweeter pastures and it often requires much time and effort to persuade them to return to that feeder when they have other food sources readily available. This is very likely the cause of the complaint that “the birds went away” or “they don’t like the feeder”. Note that there will be a lower level of feeding at the feeder during the time the female has chicks in the nest, a couple of weeks in late June or July.

Placing the feeder in shade and out of as much direct sunlight as possible will go a long way to keeping the feeder clean and active and reduce, but NOT eliminate, the cleaning and filling chore.

Temperature and sunlight are also contributors to a commonly-voiced dripping problem with vacuum feeders. It is simply physics that when a gas or liquid is heated, it expands and what is inside the feeder is a bit of each. When liquid expands it has to go someplace and that someplace is generally out the feeding tube in the form of annoying and unsightly drips. This probably cannot be entirely eliminated but keeping the feeder out of direct sunlight is one positive step.

Some recommend the placing of two or more feeders out of sight of each other to reduce the territorial squabbles that occur when a male takes “possession” of a feeder. This should have some effect, but we do like to have all the feeders in places they can be seen and dividing them makes this harder.

Nectar for hummingbird feeders could not be easier to prepare. The recipe is: One part ordinary white cane granulated sugar and four parts water. The addition of red coloring is not advised as some biologists believe the coloring is actually harmful to the birds. As mentioned above, red bows or ribbons will call attention to the feeder until it is discovered. Generally, garden flowers are not yet blooming when the birds migrate northward, so the red ribbon will encourage them to stop and investigate your food source.

Tap water is perfect. Distilled water is neither necessary nor recommended. It is not necessary to boil the water. A common myth is that boiling will reduce fermentation, but fermentation is not caused by anything in the water. Boiling will reduce the levels of chlorination and fluoridation in the water if you are using a system in which these are present. Sugar does dissolve better in warm water, but even that is not required if care is taken to stir until all the sugar is dissolved. You can prepare more nectar than your feeder will hold. It will safely store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

This mixture is about the same sweetness as natural nectar (21%) and will not attract nearly as many insects as a more syrupy mixture. There is actually some concern among some birders that the more sugary mixtures can cause liver damage in hummers. The 1:4 mix has been proven to be harmless and will provide the needed energy. Commercial hummer food is also not necessary and may actually be undesirable. They are also certainly more expensive and inconvenient than readily available home ingredients of water and sugar (sucrose).

There is no proven advantage of using one of the other sugars (glucose or fructose) and it appears that when given a choice, hummers prefer sucrose. If the hummers seem to be avoiding the feeder and your sugar does not specifically say it is sucrose, you can try changing to a brand that says it is pure cane sugar. DO NOT use raw sugar (difficult to get in the US due to pure food laws) as it contains a high level of iron which builds up in hummers and is fatal.

NEVER use honey, Jell-o, brown sugar, fruit, or red food coloring in your nectar mixture. Honey ferments VERY rapidly. Red dye is not necessary and some reports link red dye to tumors in the birds. Why take the chance?

The hummer feeder is really just a supplement which provides the hummer with the quick energy, the same energy as sugar fed to small children, to pursue the remainder of their diet – small insects.

Hanging a feeder confers a certain responsibility for healthy upkeep and one must be sure this responsibility can be honored when feeders are placed. Experts say hummers can detect fermented or moldy food and so there is a small, but real, chance of physical harm. The hummer will, however, quickly abandon a contaminated feeder in favor of good food and will have to be lured back, similar to a human avoiding a bad restaurant even after it has been reported to have become better.

Every week:

Note whether the nectar shows any cloudiness (fermentation) or mold (black spots) in the liquid or on the sides of the container. Fermentation means the feeder should be cleaned and refilled sooner; about 3 days at 80 degrees F and 2 days at 90 degrees F. Empty the feeder and flush with hot water. DO NOT use soap as hummers apparently do not like the residual taste. If mold is present, or just as a precaution, soak the feeder in a dilute bleach mixture of ΒΌ cup common bleach to 1 gallon of water for an hour. The feeder should be rinsed thoroughly but any remaining bleach will be neutralized by the new nectar. Use a pipe cleaner to remove fungus from the feeding tube or nectar ports.

A bottle brush that reaches to the bottom and sides of the container is a great help. Another way to brush the inside is to put a small amount of uncooked rice or sand/small pebbles and some water in the feeder and thoroughly shake the feeder to dislodge the mold. Feeding tubes or feeder openings can be cleaned using a pipe cleaner. When the entire feeder is clean, rinse again and fill.

At least once a month:

Clean the feeder thoroughly with the dilute bleach solution described previously, brush and clean thoroughly, rinse and refill.

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