Feeding Hummers

broad-tailed-hummingbird_redrocksranch-hwy115-co_lah_3795Right on schedule, I hear the shrill whistle of a Broad-tailed Hummingbird’s wings. I’m writing this on May 1, and I just had my first tiny visitor of the season—on the exact same date as last year. I’d hung the feeder a few days ago, just in case, but not one bird stopped by until today. Amazing.

I’ve had a feeder outside my kitchen window every summer for about eight years now. One year, May 1 brought a heavy snowfall, with temperatures in the 20s and the wind whistling about the eaves. Surely the birds were snuggled somewhere safe and warm, I thought. Maybe most birds were, but at least one Broad-tail braved the storm to get to my feeder. If the hummingbirds are that eager (desperate?) to have a sugar water snack, the least I can do is offer what they expect.

Often friends ask me about feeding hummingbirds. Either they’ve never done it before, or previous attempts failed to attract any birds. Here’s what I tell them.

Which Feeder?
The first consideration is choosing a feeder. You can spend as little as $4.00, or considerably more. The birds won’t care a bit; it’s more a matter of aesthetics. It’s important, however, that the feeder be easy to clean. Many of the fancy models have very narrow necks, too small for even a bottle brush. Since I live in a very windy area, and my feeder is on our second-story balcony, I avoid glass or anything else that is easily broken. Glass and ceramic look pretty, but one strong gust and I’m sweeping up the pieces.

broadtail-hummingbird-home-lah-780This is my favorite feeder. It was made by Perky Pet and features a wide-mouthed plastic bottle that holds two cups of sugar water. The red color attracts the birds, and it doesn’t have those yellow plastic flowers (a squirrel happily gnawed off the yellow flowers on my previous feeder).

hummingbird_patagonia-az_plh_7429nefI prefer the vertical orientation. The “flying saucer” shaped feeders (like the one at right) are also popular, but mine never hang evenly. All the water ends up dripping out of one side, while the uphill birds get short-changed. Maybe I just have lopsided hooks!

Sugar Water
Once you have your feeder, it’s time to fill it. There’s no need to buy a nectar product—a simple sugar-water solution can be made using 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Heat it until the sugar melts (stirring speeds this up). Cool before filling feeder. Store excess in the fridge.  Don’t use it if it develops mold or starts to look cloudy.

It is important to use plain old granulated table sugar. Honey, agave nectar, and all the myriad other sugar substitutes are hazardous to the birds. For example, honey supports the growth of a potentially fatal fungus in the hummingbird’s throat. The dangers of red dye are not known, so avoid that too. You don’t need it anyway.

The sugar solution will last several days in the feeder. How long depends on the outside temperatures, and the amount of sun the feeder gets. Be sure to change it if it starts to look hazy or it becomes contaminated. If you wouldn’t drink it, neither should the birds. Thoroughly scrub the feeder inside and out. Rinse well, then refill.

Attracting Birds
Give the hummers a week or so to find your feeder. Once they know where it is, they’ll remember exactly where to find it from year to year, as my experience shows.

If your patience is wearing thin, and you know hummingbirds are in your area, perhaps you need to do a bit of advertising. Especially if your feeder is hidden under the eaves, the birds might not see it. Try typing a big red bow—the kind you’d put on a gift automobile—around some object close by. Or use a red towel, a blanket… or paint a red bull’s-eye on your lawn! (Don’t blame me if the neighbors complain.) Make sure it’s visible from above. Something big, bright, and red should get their attention!

Remember, you’re just providing dessert or a quick energy drink. Hummers primarily eat insects, not sugar. Avoid using toxic pesticides in your garden, keep the feeder clean and filled, and you’ll soon have a steady stream of dazzling beauties coming to your yard.

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