Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts. This part is on attracting hummingbirds on a small scale. The second part will be tips from an expert whose yard hosts hundreds of the birds at a time.
By Alyson Hoge
The first time I saw hummingbirds buzz around a feeder, I was captivated.
They move like no other bird. They are more like helicopters in how they move around a feeder — hovering, flying backward. When they fly across the yard, they remind me of the fighter planes in World War II movies about the Pacific theater.
Their wings move so fast that only when seen in in slow motion do you appreciate the complexity of the movements. Their wing beats sound like bees buzzing — or small UFOs — but the birds’ angry chirps help identify who’s hovering around you.
We are lucky they only weigh around a tenth of an ounce and that they mean us no harm. If these fierce birds were as big as eagles, we’d be holding conferences on how to deal with the damage and destruction caused by hummingbirds.
I didn’t have much luck drawing birds to my first hummingbird feeder. I lived in the city then, on the side of a hill. The feeder was under a big oak tree. Only one or two birds visited that feeder.
There’s a lot more hummer activity where we live now, away from civilization. This seems odd, because we are surrounded by woods and, while there are wild flowers, there aren’t many red ones, the color most often cited as the one that attracts the birds. We do have a LOT more insects than you see in the city. (Another post I have planned is on how to trap horseflies and deer flies.)
If you live in Arkansas, you have until about mid-March to get ready for the first wave of ruby-throated hummingbirds as they make their way from Central America. You will see them until about October.
At the height of the ruby-throat season — the middle of the summer — I’ll have five to seven quart-size feeders in my yard, feeding up to 40 birds at a time. (In the next installment, you’ll learn about an Alabama couple who make me look like an amateur.)
Last year, I was using 5 pounds of sugar a week. Two years ago, I had more visitors and was up to 10 pounds a week.
So, without further ado, here are tips and how-to’s of attracting these little birds. I can’t claim credit for all of this; much of this information is widely accepted knowledge. The rest is from my experience.
Hummingbirds eat insects for protein and nectar from flowers and your feeders for energy.
You can buy “nectar” already made. You also can buy a mix that you add water to.
It’s simple to make your own.
The ratio is 4 parts water to 1 part white granulated cane sugar.
For example, 4 cups of water to 1 cup of sugar. Bad at math and conversions? That’s 1 quart of water and 1 cup of sugar. Or 2 quarts of water and 2 cups of sugar.
If making this in a gallon jug, you’ll have an overflow if you try to add 4 cups of sugar to a gallon (4 quarts) of water. Try 3 1/2 quarts of water and 3 1/4 cups of sugar.
Stir until the sugar is dissolved. It can be refrigerated until you need it.
Here are the don’ts and don’t-need-to’s:
— Don’t add red dye. It’s unnecessary. The birds check out everything in their pursuit of nectar and I think they’ve figured out the best stuff is in those red feeder bases.
— Don’t use powdered sugar — it has an additive that hummers don’t need.
— Don’t use any other kind of sweetener — not honey, not brown sugar, certainly no artificial stuff — use only white granulated sugar.
— If it makes you feel better to boil it, go ahead. I don’t.
I’m very particular about the construction of my hummingbird feeders. They have few parts, clear plastic or glass nectar containers with wide mouths and red bases with perches. Here’s what I look for when I’m shopping for one:
— Can I see the level of nectar?
I’ve seen very pretty feeders that have paint covering where the nectar is. How am I going to know when the feeder needs refilling? Or whether the feeder is attracting birds at all?
— How many parts does it have and can it be easily disassembled for cleaning?
If you leave a feeder out for too long, black mold grows. Sometimes a bleach bath isn’t enough to remove it and you have to scrub it. Are there tubes or small parts or crevices that will be hard to clean?
— Does it keep the bugs out?
One drawback of my favorite feeders is that yellow jackets and bees can crawl through the holes. Once inside the base, they may drown. Or you may have a live sugar-coated yellow jacket.
This was a big problem during the drought two years ago — the feeders drew dozens of insects. I watched a bee chase hummers away from the feeder! My answer was to set aside a dish of sugar with a little water for the insects. (Yellow jackets are beneficial insects. I hold no grudge against them even though a dozen stung me long ago.)
To keep the ants out, use an ant bell.
HOW LONG CAN THE FEEDER STAY OUT?
Most people recommend leaving the feeder up only 4 days tops. Any longer and things start to grow in the feeder, such as mold.
Your goal should be to have it emptied before then.
In March, I’ll hang one feeder with about a pint of nectar. As I see more activity, I increase the amount of nectar and number of feeders.
I mark on the calendar the things I want to track, such as:
— When I put out the first feeder.
— When I see the first hummer. (March 22 in 2012, March 23 in 2011)
— When I see more than one hummer at a time.
— When I increase the number of feeders.
My feeders are numbered. I log when I put them out and bring them in.
Soap and water, vinegar and water, bleach and water — I’ve tried them all.
What works best:
— Rinse the feeder parts to remove debris and leftover nectar. Scrub if necessary.
— Soak the feeders in a solution equal to 1/4 cup of bleach to a gallon of water. A few hours ought to be enough.
— Rinse in clean water and let air dry.
You can find extensive lists on the Internet of the flowers that draw hummers and butterflies.
The most popular ones in my yard — all red and pink, of course:
— Cannas, which birds of all kinds like for shelter and roosting.
The flowers are located where the feeders are. The birds also like to perch on tomato cages.