Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds
By Marie James
I’ve always had a fascination and love for birds. I was just a young child when my dad began to teach me how to identify various birds native to our region. Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed watching birds and figuring out which ones I saw in the backyard or at parks and campgrounds.
The tiny little hummingbird has always been a favorite. Shortly after we bought our rural property, I was surprised but delighted to discover that our forested acreage was populated by three different varieties of hummers.
Our first forest hummingbird sighting took place several years ago when we camped while developing our property. One day I noticed something darting around one of the red reflector lights at the top of our trailer. Before long there were three hummingbirds investigating that odd-looking rectangular hard plastic “flower.”
A few years later, when we were to be here for most of the summer, I hung some hummingbird feeders around the trailer and picnic canopy. The fun began.
The social order around the feeders was interesting. Sometimes birds would fight over territory. Other times it looked like a tea party as several birds peacefully sat in a circle sipping their sweet beverage.
I have to confess I spent many hours watching those birds. With my trusty field guide at hand, I identified calliope, black-chinned, and rufous hummingbirds dining outside the kitchen window.
Hummingbirds will fly anywhere looking for food and will remain where food sources are found. Even better (and amazing): they will return year after year. As they move through their annual migration, hummingbirds pass through our area every year from spring through summer.
There are two ways to attract hummingbirds to your yard or garden. One is to provide nectar-producing flowers, bushes, and trees. The other is to hang hummingbird feeders full of nectar made from sugar and water.
As I learned at our campsite several years ago, anything red will attract hummingbirds. For this reason, red blossoms and red feeder parts will catch their attention. However, hummers will find and drink nectar from blossoms of many colors and sip from feeders with no red on them.
Following is a list of some plants favored by hummingbirds. Some are native plants that could be transplanted or introduced into your yard. Seeds and starter plants of other varieties can be purchased online and at local garden supply outlets.
It is thought that many hybrids no longer provide the same nectar that existed in the parent plants, so I focus on heirloom and local native varieties.
Aster, Azalea, Bee balm, Bleeding heart, Butterfly bush, Clarkia, Columbine, Coral bells, Cosmos, Crabapple, Dahlia, Delphinium, Fuschia, Annual Geranium (Pelargonium), Gladiola, Hollyhock, Honeysuckle, Impatiens, Iris, Lavender, Lupine, Marigold, Nasturtium, Penstemon, Petunia, Red-flowering currant, Sage, Salmonberry, Scabiosa, Scarlet runner bean, Snapdragon, Sweet William, Verbena, Weigela, Yarrow, Zinnia.
There are many kinds of hummingbird feeders on the market, available at garden centers, discount stores, and even at art boutiques. Most commercial feeders have some red parts to attract the hummers. If there’s not enough color on the feeder, a red plastic flower or ribbon can be attached to draw more attention.
If you have lots of hummingbirds, I recommend buying the largest feeders you can to avoid constant refilling during the summer. Some high-use days, our 2-cup feeders are empty by afternoon. Of course they don’t have to be refilled right away, but the sight of hungry hummers fruitlessly checking each and every hole in a feeder just tugs at my heartstrings.
The caveat of having a large feeder is that the sugar solution should be replaced every four days or so, whether or not the feeder is empty. If there isn’t enough traffic for a large feeder, a small one may be a better choice. Or, hang a large feeder only partly full of nectar during slow periods.
Some say that if you let your feeders go empty, the hummingbirds will leave and not return. I have not had that experience. Many times our feeders have gone dry for days, and when we filled them again, the hummers returned. I suspect they just go find some natural food sources while waiting for the cafe to reopen.
Tiny hummingbirds have delicate digestive systems and can be adversely affected by bacteria, molds, and fungi. Feeders should be cleaned frequently to avoid the growth of these organisms and to clear out ants and other debris. It’s a good idea to wash with dish soap and water each time the feeder is refilled, rinsing with white vinegar to sanitize.
Recipe for success
There’s no need to purchase hummingbird nectar, as it’s simple and inexpensive to make at home with just water and granulated white sugar.
There are three precautions to take.
- Use a 1:4 proportion of sugar to water to ensure the hummingbirds get the nutrients they need.
- Use only granulated white sugar–no brown sugar, honey, syrups, or artificial sweeteners.
- Do not add any food coloring or dye to the solution.
Thin or overly sweet nectar, other sweeteners, and food coloring all have the potential to cause illness or malnutrition in the birds.
To make a batch of hummingbird nectar, measure out 1 part granulated white sugar to 4 parts water. If you want 4 cups of nectar, use 1 cup of sugar and 4 cups of water. For 2 cups of nectar, use 1/2 cup of sugar and 2 cups of water.
Bring the water to a boil. Then stir in the sugar to dissolve it, and set the pot aside to cool. Fill feeders and hang where the hummers can find them.
Leftover nectar may be refrigerated for a few days or frozen for longer storage. I usually make enough to fill my feeders once and make at least one round of refills.
No matter how you feed them, enjoy those tiny little birds around your home and yard–and even in the barnyard and forest!
My family and I are constantly learning new skills and tweaking old ones as we develop and work on our fairly new farm. You can read about more of our experiences, ideas, and lessons learned at our blog Rural Living Today.
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