For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbird and Oriole Feeders

Original Air Date: May 5, 1997

This is the week to set out hummingbird and oriole feeders. (3:55) Date confirmed.

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For birders, May is the month of color and song. Some May birds are elusive, like warblers at tree-top height or wrens skulking in the underbrush, but two of the most colorful and welcome returning migrants are also two of the easiest to lure to a window feeder.

The Baltimore Oriole and Ruby-throated Hummingbird eat foods as sweet as their colors. Both eat flower nectar and readily visit sugar water feeders. During migration, when they are strangers passing through, they can be enticed to feeders in the most urban habitats. As they migrate overhead, they notice bright red or orange feeders sticking out in the drab early-spring landscape. If you haven’t already set out feeders, this is the time to do it.

You can spend a fortune on fancy hummingbird feeders, or buy a small one for less than five dollars. A gerbil water bottle decorated with red paper can even serve. Hummingbirds are highly territorial and virtually never feed together without squabbling, so spreading out four feeders with single ports will attract more birds to your yard than one feeder with four ports. Hummers expend less energy while sitting, so I prefer feeders with perches. At one and a half ounces, an oriole weighs 15 times as much as a hummingbird and has bigger feet, but some will go through all kinds of contortions to eat a hummingbird feeders. Much easier for them are sugar water feeders with oversized perches. Orioles will also take sugar water from orange or red cereal bowls.

Always use 1/4 cup of sugar to one cup of water. Both species prefer sweeter sugar water, but without enough water to metabolize the sugar, they may become dehydrated. Never use honey, even though it sounds more natural than white processed sugar. A fungus that grows in honey and doesn’t affect humans does affect hummingbirds, causing a tongue disease similar to “thrush” in human babies. Don’t use red food coloring. Hummers and orioles are both attracted to the color, but red feeder parts are enough enticement. Food dyes may cause cancer in birds.

Keep sugar water fresh. If it grows cloudy or develops black mold, clean the feeder thoroughly and rinse with very hot salt water and then fresh water before refilling. Even if the water stays clear, change it every two or three days, especially in hot weather. Sugar water ferments, and the alcohol content of even three-day-old sugar water can contribute to liver diseases.

In addition to nectar and sugar water, hummingbirds eat an abundance of tiny insects. Set out chunks of banana and melon in a mesh onion bag to attract fruit flies. Hummers will zip this way and that pursuing tiny insects in a delightful show.

To attract orioles, impale orange halves on dowel feeders, set them on a deck railing, picnic table, or flat feeder, or tie them with string to tree branches. Orioles also eat jelly. I drop a few spoonfuls of generic grape jelly into an orange cereal bowl to set on my feeding platform. My jelly attracts not only orioles but also catbirds, thrashers, and a few species of warblers.

So start setting out sweet and fruity treats for the birds. Not only will you be helping hungry migrants, but the sight of a hummingbird or oriole after this long winter may even serve to sweeten the dispositions of some of us human Northlanders.