Happy Hummers!

by Delores Rice Logue

© 1998 Delores Rice Logue

"In your face" dynamos

Some of my more pleasant summer moments have been spent sitting on our deck surrounded by plants and flowers– a mini-jungle– watching hummingbirds; watching them feeding, fighting, and flaunting themselves and their almost unbelievable flying abilities. If we serve hamburgers outdoors they fly up and hover, investigating the red ketchup bottle. If both feeders are down for cleaning at the same time, the hummers hover in the spot where the feeders were, then they sort of "get in your face," as if to say, "Where are our feeders?!?!"

Feeders: What I like and don't like

The feeders I now use have clear glass reservoirs, don't hold more than 1 cup of sugar water, have red flower-shaped feeding stations with yellow bee/wasp guards, and hang from a vinyl-covered wire rather than a cord. Some of the feeders I no longer use have whitish plastic reservoirs which keeps me from checking on the condition of the fluid. If I notice cloudiness of the sugar water after the feeder's been up only a day or two in hot weather, I take it down, clean it with hot water, rinse it well and refill it with fresh "nectar." Actually, I don't fill it. I never put more than 4 to 6 ounces of sugar water in the feeders. This way I don't feel I'm wasting a lot of sugar water when I throw it away after only 2 days (3 if the weather is somewhat cool, and there are no signs of cloudiness in the artificial nectar). The small amount of fluid in my feeders "forces" me to keep tabs on the fluid level. Frequent cleaning is very important to the health of the hummingbirds. When sipping from natural flowers they would select freshly-opened flowers, not flowers with old, stale, moldy nectar which could make them sick or even kill them. I want to be very, very sure the artificial nectar I provide is as fresh as possible.
The bee/wasp guards have really made a difference. My old feeders often had 2 or 3 wasps feeding, and a hovering hummingbird checking it out, then going elsewhere. (Not what I had in mind.) I like the wire hanger better than the cord because the wire-hung feeder doesn't twist and turn on breezy days, but stays fairly stationary.
Glass is better than plastic because it's much easier to clean and I know I'm less likely to have mildew or fungus growing on the feeder. However, I still sterilize them with diluted bleach every so often, watching for any signs of black sooty stuff which would indicate fungus or mildew. Rinse, rinse, rinse after using bleach solution!

Update: I have a new feeder that I like a lot. It is even easier to clean. If filled, it would hold far too much 'nectar' for the small number of hummingbirds I usually have, so I don't fill it– I still use about 6 to 8 oz. or so.
The red color of the feeder (or at least some red on the feeder) is important because you will then not have to use red dyes or colorants of any type in the sugar water. The hummingbirds are attracted to the red feeder, making tinting of the fluid completely unnecessary. My overall recommendations are: glass– clear not frosted; small capacity; wire hanger, and red color on the feeder itself. It's also nice to have dispensers with bee/wasp guards. The feeder pictured has internal guards that successfully keep most bugs out, though very small insects can sometimes squeeze through.

How many feeders?

Having several small feeders is much better than having one large one. Hummers, being very territorial, will fight to defend their feeding area. Much better to scatter several feeders around your deck/patio/garden area. Try to keep them in a shaded area; or if they must hang in the sun change the fluid even more frequently. You can start with two (so you can take them down for cleaning one at a time, avoiding the situation I described earlier, where the hummers have no feeder at all during cleaning), then add more (and then still more) if you can manage the cleaning 'chore' of several feeders. There is new thinking that having a lot of feeders close together somewhat simulates a flowering shrub with plenty of places to feed, and the hummers don't fight (as much as when there are only a very few!). I used to put them out of sight of each other, but the male would find a perch where he could monitor them both and attack any other hummer, male or female, attempting to feed. Now I do the feeder-close-together thing — and sometimes it seems to work. Sometimes they still chase others away. Hummingbirds are little meanies!!

Hummingbird wars!

Conversations with friends on our deck are often interrupted by hummingbirds buzzing by, chasing other hummers away from feeders they consider "theirs." High-pitched, squeaky sounds accompany the aerial antics. Hummers are so territorial that I guess the humminbird wars (well, battles, anyway) will happen no matter what we do, though I have seen videos of dozens of hummers feeding at dozens (yes, dozens) of clustered feeders and I didn't notice much fighting.

What's in the feeders?

I use 4 parts of boiling water to 1 part of plain white granulated cane sugar. Do not use anything but white sugar. Honey seems like a good thing to feed, but it's not! I have read that slightly weaker solutions (less sugar) are even better to use (6 water to 1 sugar), but do not make a solution that is any stronger than 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. I usually make a pint at a time, but if several hummers have been visiting and feeding regularly I make a quart. Store it in a clean, covered container in the refrigerator. Mark it so everyone will know what it is. Sometimes I put ONE DROP of red food coloring in the jar that's in the fridge, so the pale pink tint alerts everyone to what it is. Make sure the fluid is at room temperature before hanging the feeders outside. Sometimes I refill a feeder late in the evening, after the hummers have 'gone to bed,' and by morning the fluid will have adjusted to the temperature of the surrounding air.

When to put them up and take them down

Mid- May is when I usually see the first hummers of the year, here in central Illinois. My kitchen calendar had "first hummer!" scrawled across May 15 in 1996. In 1999 it was May 13. Taking the feeders down is a subject that falls under the category of Hummingbird Wars, but it's humans arguing, not birds. There is a lot of disagreement, with some saying the feeders should be taken down by mid-September so the birds will migrate south. Others say the birds will go when it's time to go– feeder up or not– and that having a feeder up until mid-October or even later assures a food supply for any stragglers who might not make it otherwise. I lean toward the leave-it-up-longer side of the issue since our hummers leave whether or not I still have feeders up.

Which hummingbirds will come?

That's an easy one. In central Illinois it will be the ruby-throated. It's the only hummingbird that breeds east of the Mississippi River. (If you see another variety, notify the RBA hotline!)

Courtship displays

I had read of the pendulum-shaped flight pattern of the courting male and was looking forward to seeing it. One of "my" male hummers treated me to a display recently that was like an upside down pendulum. He flew side-to-side in an arc about 18 inches across– higher in the middle than at the sides. A female was perched about 12 to 18 inches in front of him. Buzzing and clicking sounds accompanied the flight display. Then a few days later I was treated to another courting flight similar to this one, but in a "normal" pendulum shape– lower in the middle. This one also was about 18 inches to 20 inches across. Another day I saw a straight-across side-to-side flight about 12 inches from one side to the other with the female sitting only about 12 inches from the display . I thought I had seen it all. But just a few days later a friend and I were tending some food outside on the barbecue grill, when we heard the courting sounds and turned to find, not 10 feet away from us, a male hummer flying side to side, making a huge pendulum shape at least 10 or 12 feet across! The female watched from a perch on a purple coneflower in a flower bed about 12 feet in front of him. Interestingly, the distance from the male to the female was, once again, very similar to the width of the "pendulum display." The display lasted half a minute or so and then both hummers flew away. We were wide-eyed, grinning from ear to ear and totally, totally impressed.

Bringing hummers to your house

When I wanted to lure hummers to our deck I bought hanging baskets of bright red and pink flowers. I also put pots of bright flowers in clusters and groups among the foliage plants I have on the deck. I have pots with petunias, salvia, and other flowers that hummingbirds are supposed to like, but at our place the hummers usually head straight for the feeder, ignoring all the flowers. I saw one take one quick sip from a pink petunia, next a brief taste from a salvia blossom, then it flew over to the feeder and perched there for more than a minute, quietly sipping the sugar water. The bright blossoms on our deck include impatiens, geraniums, and other flowers as well as brightly colored coleus, just to have the colors that attract hummers. And now a bright pink hollyhock has just started blooming near the deck, so I'm sure passing hummers can see from afar that the area is worth checking out. I know they love trumpet vine but I want none of that invasive stuff around!
There are extensive lists of flowers attractive to hummingbirds, but I just grow things that are easy to find at gardening centers. The feeders keep the little guys happy and well fed and they seem to prefer the feeders to my flowers anyway! I do think I will look into growing some flowering vines (other than trumpet vine) and other perennials liked by hummers so if I want to leave for more than 2 or 3 days there will be food for them. (If I were going to be gone more than 2 days I would definitely take the feeders down unless I could find a dedicated soul who would clean them and add fresh "nectar.") If you have little or no time to mess with filling and cleaning feeders, definitely consider the many hanging flower baskets available at garden centers. Find out which ones hummers really love and get several kinds! (Petunias are cheap and hummers love them.) The hummingbirds will then have fresh natural food, which is probably better for them than anything humans can invent anyway!

What about ants?

I went to a lot of trouble last year inventing an ant guard which worked fairly well, but I had to replenish the water often, as it consisted of a shallow "moat" filled with water. This year I read you can just rub a few drops of cooking oil on the hook your feeder hangs on and ants won't cross it. I've been using olive oil and have had no serious ant problems. You want your feeder in the shade if possible, but you do have to keep nearby plants from touching the feeder or the ants will find a bridge that lets them avoid the oil. If ants do find a way to your feeder they will clog the tiny inner passageways and introduce bacteria. You don't want 'em!

"Our" hummers return to us

We're sure the previous year's hummers return because in early-to-mid-May we see the first hummers hovering and searching the deck where the feeders will hang– even before we put them up. They know where the feeders are supposed to be!
These little iridescent dynamos are one of the joys of life. Just be sure to think of their health and safety as well as your own enjoyment. Try hummingbirding. You'll like it!

Article and hummingbird illustration
copyright 1998 Delores Rice Logue, all rights reserved

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