I recently wrote a few columns on the joys and practicalities of feeding backyard birds. There is one more subset of this topic that I think deserves a little more attention: attracting hummingbirds. There are probably more people using hummingbird feeders than any other type of bird feeder, and for good reason. Hummingbird feeders are easy, mess-free, and attract only the birds that are universally considered wonderful and charming creatures. However, with extreme popularity comes many questions and I am here to answer them.
How do you feed hummingbirds? The formula is simple: one part sugar, four parts water. Stir or shake well until combined. (Warm water will help dissolve the sugar faster, but you don’t need to boil it.) Don’t use artificial sweeteners, alternative sweeteners like maple syrup or honey, or even organic sugar with a brown tint (i.e. due to the higher concentration of iron that hummingbirds can’t process compared to conventionally refined sugar) . White table sugar is the standard recommendation that most closely resembles typical flower nectar.
While commercial “hummingbird nectar” mixes are available, no additives other than sugar are needed, although concentrated liquid versions may be a bit more convenient to mix.
Fill a hanging or window-mounted hummingbird feeder with this mixture, sit back and watch. Change your mix at least once a week; in hot weather or in places exposed to the sun, two or three times a week may be a better guide. For typical routine maintenance, rinsing with hot water and using a suitable brush or sponge is sufficient. If you develop mold stains, soak the affected area with a 10% bleach solution or 50% vinegar solution before rinsing well and refilling.
How can you avoid problems with leaks, ants or bees? The easiest solution is to use a flat saucer-style feeder instead of one with an upside-down bottle reservoir. This type of feeder does not fight against gravity and is inherently leak proof. Unlike baby bottles, where the nectar is very close to the feeding port openings, saucer-style feeders have a gap between the cap and the nectar surface—a gap that only hummingbirds, with their long beaks and tongues, can handle. , they can reach through. Many of these style feeders also come with a built-in ant pit, which can be filled with running water to block small crawling insects.
If you prefer a bottle-style feeder (for cosmetic reasons or large capacity), you can look for a model that has bee guards, then add a separate ant pit if needed.
Why don’t you have hummingbirds? The first thing you need to do is make sure your nectar mix is fresh. The second thing to do is be patient. It is normal for hummingbird numbers to fluctuate throughout the year as they seek out different food sources.
Perhaps a certain plant is blooming profusely somewhere beyond your garden. Or perhaps nearby flowers are actually extremely abundant and are temporarily being favored over their feeders. Just keep your nectar fresh and wait.
When is the right time to feed hummingbirds? Whenever you want! Our most common hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird, is here year-round. You’ll recognize males by their iridescent magenta heads (which can look red to black depending on the light). Females are mostly green and gray with some flashes on the throat.
From early spring through September, smaller numbers of Rufous and smaller Rufous-flanked Allen’s Hummingbirds visit us.
And you need to worry about bird flu? In most of the cases, no. There is a spreading strain of avian influenza that is quite deadly to chickens and birds of prey, while it is frequently spread by waterfowl. There are no cases of hummingbirds dying from the disease, and few of backyard songbirds. (There are about 20 cases of crows across the country dying from the disease after feeding on infected poultry or waterfowl.)
According to the USDA and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, feeding backyard birds is not believed to be a major factor in the spread of this bird flu. If you have chickens, I encourage you to look into recommended precautions to keep your flock safe. But hummingbirds and other backyard birds are not at risk and can still be fed safely.
Jack Gedney’s On the Wing is presented every other Monday. He is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Novato and the author of “The Private Lives of Public Birds.” You can reach him at [email protected]