This week, while visiting my grandmother, I made the mistake of standing near a hummingbird feeder. Ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzed around my head on their way to the feeder. My initial reaction was to run for cover, but once I realized that they weren’t after me, I was able to enjoy these amazing birds.
The smallest bird in the world, the hummingbird is also one of the most frenetic, beating its wings dozens of times a second to stay in the air. Most of the bird’s energy comes from the flower nectar it feeds on; protein comes from spiders and other small soft-bodied insects. You can supplement this natural diet by offering feeders that dispense a sugar-water solution.
Hummingbirds are attracted to plants with red to orange flowers, but they’ll frequent any plant with sufficient nectar. A long, tubular flower presents no obstacle because a hummingbird’s tongue extends the length of its beak. Fragrance isn’t a factor because hummingbirds have little or no sense of smell.
Plants whose flowers and nectar are favored by hummingbirds include such perennials as columbine, bee balm, clematis, coral bells, daylily, hosta, trumpet honeysuckle, and giant hyssop. Among annuals, hummingbirds seek out gladiolas, fuchsia, hollyhock, nasturtium, penstemon, petunia, salvia, nicotiana (flowering tobacco), and morning glory.
Most any hummingbird feeder will attract hummingbirds. Look for a feeder that’s easy to fill and clean, without too many curves or hard-to-clean areas. A red feeder or a feeder with red trim is desirable because the red seems to attract hummingbirds. Grids or screens over the feeding ports help discourage bees. Look for dripless feeders, which will attract fewer ants.
Hang the feeder from a tree branch or on a partially shaded deck or porch. An aggressive male hummingbird may dominate a feeder, so consider hanging at least two feeders. Place your feeders outdoors in time for the birds’ spring arrival, starting in late April, and continue feeding until hummingbirds migrate in the fall, usually by late September.
You may fill your hummingbird feeders with a commercial “nectar” solution or with a homemade mixture of sugar and water consisting of one part granulated white sugar and four parts water. Boil the water and dissolve the sugar, then allow the syrup to cool before filling the feeder. Don’t use red food coloring or other additives, which are unnecessary and may even harm the birds. Unused syrup may be stored in a dated container in the refrigerator for as long as one week.
Hanging a hummingbird feeder in your yard means taking responsibility for maintaining the feeder. The solution in the feeder must be changed every few days, and more often (possibly every day) in hot weather. Do not top off feeders; instead, dispose of the old syrup and clean the feeder before refilling it to prevent the growth of mold. One method for cleaning feeders is to rinse with hot water and clean with a bottle brush. Then fill with vinegar and uncooked rice and shake vigorously, remove solution, rinse and refill with fresh sugar-water solution. If you’re not ready to commit to keeping a feeder clean and filled with fresh sugar water, consider planting flowers that will attract hummingbirds.
For more information about the ruby-throated hummingbird and its habitat and plant preferences, visit “Illinois Birds,” part of Illinois Natural Resources Information Network, at www.inhs.uiuc.edu/chf/pub/ifwis/birds/. For a list of hummingbirds’ flower preferences, visit ianrpubs.unl.edu/wildlife/g1331.htm for the University of Nebraska’s fact sheet “Backyard Wildlife: To Feed a Hummingbird.”