For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds iin Autumn

Original Air Date: Sept. 4, 1995

Today, Laura Erickson reminds us of some rules about hummingbird feeding. (3:59) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


With summer’s end comes the start of the bird feeding season. This year there’s a great new resource for feeding, Carrol Henderson, the head the the Minnesota D.N.R.’s Non-Game Wildlife Program has just published a book about it called Wild about Birds: The D.N.R.’s Bird Feeding Guide. I read a lot of bird feeding books, and this is far and away the best ever. Carrol has suggestions for attracting not only the usual seed-eaters, but also for bringing in insect eaters with mealworms and with fruit flies, which you can attract by hanging pieces of banana or melon in a mesh bag.

People still seem to believe the old husband’s tale about taking in hummingbird feeders by Labor Day. I call it an old husband’s tale because one of the main disseminators of this fiction is Marty Stauffer on his TV show. Here in the Northland, there is absolutely no truth to this cruel story. Our Ruby-throated Hummingbird has an incredibly powerful instinct to migrate, and every single one will leave North Country the moment it is fat enough. Migration to a hummingbird is like a marathon race scheduled not for a particular date but for the exact moment that the racer is in top physical condition. Once a male hummingbird finds a mate and gets her in a family way, he’s free to spend the rest of his summer working on his body-building. Virtually all adult males are gone from the Lake Superior area already. Adult females have to do all the work of building the nest, laying and incubating the eggs, and taking care of the babies, and all this work depletes their fat reserves. Once the babies are on their own, the mothers can build themselves up again, and most will be gone this week.

That leaves the babies. Nobody needs to tell them to migrate. The urgent need surges in their blood. But they just can’t leave until they have enough fat. In a warm summer like this year, when insects and flowers are plentiful, they usually have plenty to eat, but feeders make their body building a lot simpler. And any hummingbirds left after a killing frost are in big trouble unless there’s a feeder around to sustain them and get them on their way. Also, many of the hummingbirds at September feeders are ones from further north, passing through on their migration. It seems unneighborly and inhospitable to let them go by without offering a bite, or sip, to eat.

Hummingbirds are perfectly happy to eat high octane sugar mixtures, but the best ratio really is a quarter cup of sugar to one cup of water. If you make it any stronger than that, there’s not enough water in the mixture to metabolize the sugar, and hummers can get dehydrated if they don’t find fresh water. It’s also important to leave out that red food color. It causes deformities in the babies of captive hummers. Of course, wild hummers eat natural food as well as feeder nectar, but now that researchers have shown that food color is definitely harmful, leave it out. And don’t use honey. That sounds a lot more natural than processed sugar, but a fungus grows in honey that doesn’t affect humans at all, but can cause a disease on a hummer’s tongue.

With the slowing activity as September progresses sometimes it’s easy to let feeders get a little rancid, but fresh sugar water is terribly important. Not only do fungi and bacteria grow quickly in sugar water, but it also ferments, and can cause liver damage. All in all, feeding hummers sounds complicated, but all you really need to remember is to keep it clean and clear and you and your hummers should be A-okay.