BirdWatching Column: Attracting Hummingbirds
The tiniest birds in the world, the hummingbirds, are also among the most popular. I saw
my first Ruby-throated Hummingbird this year in January at Merritt Island National
Wildlife Refuge in Florida, but just as I do every year, I hunger for the first one to appear
in my own backyard. The years when some remain in my Minnesota neighborhood
throughout the breeding season are thrilling. And in late July and August when we get a
surge of them during migration, I’m elated.
People in the West have a larger variety of species than we do in the East. And along the
Pacific Coast and in the Southwest and extreme southeastern United States, people often
get to enjoy hummingbirds year-round. No matter where we live, hummingbirds stand
out for their tiny size, brilliant plumage, and pugnacious ways.
Feeding hummingbirds is the quickest way to attract them to our yards. There are a few
The basic ratio of sugar to water should match that of the nectar in flowers, which
is roughly from 1:5 to 1:3.
During hot, dry conditions, dehydration can be a problem. Use four or five cups
of water for every cup of sugar.
During cold and rainy conditions, make it on the stronger side, up to about 1:3.
You don’t need to boil water to make small quantities of sugar water. If you make
larger quantities, refrigerate what you won’t be using right away.
Change the water and wash the feeder before the mixture grows cloudy. Sugar
water ferments, and the process goes faster as the temperature increases. During
hot conditions, sugar water should be changed daily, or at least every second day.
Never use food coloring, and never buy pre-packaged mixtures that produce red
“nectar.” Flowers may be colorful, but nectar is clear. Studies have shown that
food coloring is harmful to hummingbirds.
Drip feeders can lose sugar water rapidly in sunlight and during hot weather. This
makes the ground below sticky, and may attract ants.
Never use pesticides or sticky substances on feeders to dissuade pests.
Use a hanging feeder with a central “moat,” filled with tap water, to prevent ants
from reaching the feeder ports.
During migration, hummingbirds passing through your neighborhood may notice your
feeders and visit. But it takes more than sugar water to entice them to stick around. On
first arrival in spring, before flowers have opened, hummingbirds are drawn to sapsucker
drill holes. As a bonus, some migrating songbirds, including phoebes, kinglets, and Cape
May Warblers, dine at sapsucker drill holes, too, especially during inclement weather.
Fostering spiders and allowing spider webs to remain along gutters and soffit provide
hummingbirds with an essential nest-building material. Besides spider silk, they also
incorporate bits of lichen into their nests. Providing a variety of locally native vegetation
and a small rock garden or brush pile encourages spiders and lichens.
Flowers with throats provide both natural nectar and tiny insects, such as aphids, which
give hummers essential proteins. Your local bird and gardening clubs will have
suggestions for the best varieties to plant for your location.
People with hummingbird feeders often have problems with bees and wasps. Keeping
these out of feeders can be a real problem. Ironically, the color yellow may attract bees,
so the bee guards sold with many hummingbird feeders may encourage rather than
discourage bees and wasps. On drip feeders, bee guards quickly get coated with sugar
water, giving bees and wasps a larger surface area on which to feed.
One of my friends discourages these insects from his hummingbird feeders by making an
extremely strong sugar mixture (a full cup of sugar per cup of water) for one special
feeder, which he keeps far in the back of his yard. After he fills this feeder and sets it in
place, he coats the outside with more of the strong sugar mixture. This feeder becomes
exceptionally popular among bees and wasps, reduces or entirely eliminating their visits
to his other feeders.
The hummingbird feeder I most closely watch is outside the window where my desk is.
On very dry summers, yellow jackets sometimes try to take over this feeder, aggressively
chasing my hummingbirds away. One year when I reached my wit’s end, I started using
my hand vacuum cleaner to suck the wasps out of the air. One of my hummingbirds
noticed and took to hovering at the window staring at me, sometimes even tapping the
glass gently with her beak to get my attention. I’d crank open the window and start up the
noisy vacuum while she hovered just a foot or two away. The moment the wasp was
gone, she was back on the feeder, often before I’d even turned the noisy machine off.