BirdWatching Column: Attracting Hummingbirds

Published on June 15, 2012 by BirdWatching

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

simple rules:

 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.


Discouraging wasps

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.