Friday, August 8, 2014

Feeding Hummingbirds

It's that time of the year when I get the most hummingbirds at my feeder. It's hot, and the fields are brown, but the little whirring birds make summer fun the whole season long.

With their buzzing wings and long beaks, hummingbirds
can seem almost like giant mosquitoes.
Hummingbirds usually beat their wings around 50 or 60 times per second. That's very fast, and it takes a lot of energy. That energy has to come from somewhere. Do you ever drink energy drinks before exercising? It's like that for hummingbirds, except that they need even more energy than you do. Hummingbirds drink more than their weight in nectar every day.

Predictably, hummingbird feeders help hummingbirds a lot. The hummingbirds can easily get as much nectar as they need, and they can get it whenever they need it (unless the feeder runs out of nectar). Feeders are also nice for people, because they get to see the hummingbirds that visit it.

One thing about hummingbirds is that they try to dominate the feeder: when another hummingbird comes along, they chase it away, making little squeaking, chattering sounds from their bills. Even if they're smaller than the trespasser, they don't hesitate to go after it. I've seen hummingbirds chasing off competitors almost twice their size (although the larger hummingbird was sometimes hesitant to be chased by something so tiny).

The hummingbird on the left fans its tail to look bigger
and chase the other one away.
It's also fun to go up close while the hummingbirds are feeding. If you stand near the feeder, and don't make any startling moves, they'll sometimes come within a few feet to drink the nectar. And once they get used to you, they might even buzz up to you to see what you're doing. Sometimes I've had hummingbirds hovering inches from my face, looking at me.

How do you set up a hummingbird feeder? First you need to buy a feeder. You can get one for $10 on Amazon. Then you need to fill it with nectar, and hang it outside. Be sure to clean the feeder and replace the nectar every few days. If the feeder starts to get cloudy, or has stuff floating on the top, it's a sign that the nectar has been infected. Thoroughly clean the feeder and replace the nectar as soon as possible when this happens.

Recipe for classic hummingbird nectar
A close-up of a broad-tailed hummingbird

1. Bring 2 cups of clean, fresh water to a boil.
2. Stir in ½ cup of white refined sugar.
3. Let cool completely.

Double the measurements for twice as much nectar.

Boiling the mixture kills bacteria present in the water and the sugar. Some say it isn't necessary, because hummingbirds will introduce bacteria anyway as soon as they insert their bill, but I feel otherwise; there could be bacteria present in the water which is not present in the birds' bills.

Nothing extra should be added to the nectar, not even food coloring. Food coloring isn't present in the flower nectar that hummingbirds drink, so it shouldn't be added to artificial nectar. Hummingbird feeders have enough red to attract hummingbirds, and adding coloring to the nectar is completely unnecessary.

Now that you understand the basics, I'll tell you a couple of tricks for hummingbird feeding.

Consistency may require filling a feeder
in cold, wet weather
First, the best time to feed hummingbirds is in the late summer, when everybody else gets bored of refilling their hummingbird feeders. Because there aren't as many other feeders, the hummingbirds will be more likely to come to your feeder.

Second, be consistent. Try to keep clean, fresh nectar in the feeder at all times, and make sure the feeder is available as much as possible. If the hummingbirds know that they can rely on your feeder, they'll be more likely to come. And if there are no other feeders, they'll be less likely to starve.

And third, use extra sugar. Most people use a 1:4 ratio of sugar to water, but a ratio of 1:3 can work a lot better. It isn't unnatural – hummingbirds will drink even sweeter nectar in nature – and it attracts many more hummingbirds, because the hummingbirds come to your feeder instead of your neighbors' feeders. The only problems are: high concentrations of sugar attracts bees, which can scare away hummingbirds; concentrated nectar is more likely to crystallize and clog up the feeder; and hummingbirds don't get as much water when they drink concentrated nectar. Taking these issues into account, my secret recipe contains ⅔ cup sugar and 2 cups of water. Wait until the hummingbirds discover your feeder before you try it, though.

Male calliope hummingbird guarding the feeder
Using these three tricks, I've seen three different species of hummingbirds vising my feeder at the same time: broad-tailed, rufous, and a tiny calliope hummingbird. It's definitely worth the time and effort of setting up a feeder.

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