Preparing your feeders for hummingbird season

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I always get excited around this time of year when hummingbirds start showing up. While it is a bit early to see them in large numbers around our area, I have already had a couple people who told me that they have spotted one. With the cooler weather especially at night we have had around here the past few days, I’m sure they are wondering to themselves “why did we ever leave South America”.

Hummingbirds are fun to watch and easy to attract by using artificial feeders and by planting flowers in your landscape. The rubythroat hummingbird is a very common seasonal visitor to all parts of Alabama and is the most common species of hummingbird seen in Walker County as well. Rubythroat hummingbirds are recognized by their deep red throat patch and dark green back. The female looks like the male except that she has no red on her throat and has a lighter green back.

Occasionally the rufus hummingbird turns up in Alabama. The male rufus hummingbird has a “rufus” or brown color on its back and also has a reddish colored throat patch, but it is more orange than ruby.

During their daily activity, hummingbirds burn up a tremendous number of calories and usually feed about four times per hour. They have tubular tongues that they can extend deep inside flowers to reach nectar. Insects also make up a very small portion of their diets.

Since a hummingbird cannot feed all night, it has to slow its body functions during the night. This state decreased body function is called “torpor". The hummingbird’s body temperature drops, heart rate (normally an overwhelming 200 beats per minute) drops, and breathing slows to about five percent of what would be normal for a sleeping bird the size of a hummingbird. They come out of this torpor state very quickly, unlike people like me who require half the morning and several cups of coffee to wake up.

There are many types of commercial feeders available to help attract them to your lawn. A feeder with a bee guard works best because it helps to keep bees from overusing the feeder. If too many bees are attracted to the feeder, hummingbirds will be less likely to use it. Feeders are filled with nectar solution that is either purchased or made at home.  For the home made nectar solution (which is what I do at home), mix 1 part plain white table sugar to 4 parts warm water. The warm water makes the sugar dissolve faster.  Remember your old high school chemistry lesson? Allow the solution to cool before filling the feeder. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. While I do not recommend adding food coloring or anything else for that matter to your nectar solution, you can use hummingbird feeders that are constructed of red materials. I’ve never seen a hummingbird refuse a fresh container of sugar water or nectar just because it happened to be clear and not dyed red!

Be sure to keep your feeder clean. This is extremely important and is a very often overlooked or ignored step. Clean out your feeders with hot water and a bottle scrubbing brush similar to what you would use to clean out a baby’s bottle. Avoid using soaps and detergents; however, occasionally using a very dilute bleach solution is fine. If you use a bleach solution, rinse the feeder thoroughly afterward and allow it to completely air dry. Again, avoid potentially harmful detergents when cleaning your feeder, and never use honey or other sweetener products in your feeder to substitute for sugar. Hummingbirds cannot digest honey. They will eat a honey-based solution, but they will soon die from malnutrition. Always remember to change out the unused nectar solution very frequently. During the hot part of summertime, I recommend changing it at least every other day – yes feeding hummingbirds requires a lot of commitment. Remember that the sugar water solution in the feeder in combination with heat and sunlight will begin to ferment or mold quickly, and this can be very harmful to your hummingbirds.    

Many times, when one hummingbird begins to use a feeder, others are attracted as well. Males will set up territories around a feeder and defend it. The aerial combat that follows is very entertaining, but if it gets too intense, try putting up additional feeders on the other side of the yard to limit confrontations. After all boys will be boys.

Planting flowers around your home is also a good way to attract hummingbirds. Red flowers are most effective. Plantings of salvia, petunia, trumpet vine, hummingbird vine, hibiscus, or others will work fine.

Later on this fall, leave your feeders up as long as the hummingbirds want to use them. Hummingbirds are migratory and travel south across the Gulf of Mexico and Central America to overwinter some 2,000 miles from Alabama. Quite a feat for such a small bird! Don’t worry about keeping hummingbirds here longer than they need to stay. The migration behavior is a deep-rooted instinct and a simple bird feeder will not keep them here. Hummingbirds know when it is time to leave. Although not commonly seen, there are some species of hummingbirds which do not migrate, and there is a chance one of these birds might visit a feeder during late fall or even early winter. In the late summer or early fall just prior to migration, rubythroat hummingbirds may use feeders in very large numbers and then “disappear” almost overnight on their way to warmer places.