My two favorite hummingbird seasons are when the first male shows up at the feeder (that I usually haven’t put up again yet!), and when 20 or more hummers compete at my feeders as they fuel up for their winter migration. My favorite hummingbird moment though, is when my patience for keeping a clean, well-tended feeder up AFTER migration is rewarded with a winter hummingbird visit. A close second is when someone notices a rare species up from Mexico and invites all of us BirdNerds into their yard to enjoy the rarity with them!
I always equate the departure date of Texas Hummingbirds with the dates of the Rockport-Fulton Hummerbird Celebration, usually the weekend after Labor Day. If you pay attention to your feeders, you’ll see an uptick in the number of hummers gathering as they make their way towards the Gulf Coast and then further south for the winter. Here are some things you can do now to increase the chances that ‘your’ hummers find their way back to your feeder in the Spring.
1. Keep your food fresh and feeders clean. If you wait until you see fungus in your nectar, you’ve waited too long, and may have killed the very birds you were trying to help. Think of their tongues as a collection of micro-straws to slurp up the nectar. The mold in the nectar blocks those micro-straws and they can’t feed. Changing the nectar, including daily when the temperature is over 93 degrees is critical. Here is a helpful post I saw go around Facebook and found again here.
Hint: Just because you made 4 cups of nectar, doesn’t mean you need to fill your feeders full! Put out just enough for your current birds (which may be as little as a quarter cup), and when the feeders start emptying faster, up the nectar level.
Cleaning the feeders every time you add nectar is essential. Use warm soapy water, make sure there is no fungus (or to quote my Mom, ‘crud’) and about once a month give them a soak in diluted bleach water (1 Tablespoon bleach to 1 quart water), rinsed until you no longer smell bleach. Some feeders can go into dishwashers!
When you are choosing a feeder, look for how easy it is to clean. Can you pull it apart and get into the corners and seams? One of my favorites is Best-One as the feeding station comes apart for a good scrubbing, and bottle cleaners fit into the reservoir. Port brushes are also available commercially to clean the feeding ports.
Nectar: If you are buying store bought, please make sure the red dye is from beets, not artificial coloring. These birds are fast metabolizers, no need to give them artificial ingredients to process. There is a reason hummingbird feeders are always red, that red is enough to attract hummers. If hummingbirds aren’t finding your feeders, add more red around the feeders, be it flowers, cloth or soft drink cans. I can vouch for Coca-Cola cans from a hike through a corn patch in Tamaulipas’ El Cielo Biosphere Reserve! It was a hot day, one of the members of my group was just finishing a Coke and got dive-bombed by a hungry hummer who hovered around the can for about 15 seconds!
Making nectar is simple, the standard is 4 parts water to 1 part white, refined sugar. You can boil the water and then add sugar to dissolve it. If you are in a hurry, boil just 1 part (usually a cup) water, remove from heat, add all the sugar to dissolve, then add the other 3 parts of water and you’ll have cool, ready to use nectar. Store it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks to make refilling easy.
Hummingbirds are the exception to the rule that organic and natural is better as far as sugar is concerned. While recognizing that our nectar is an artificial supplement, in this case the extra processing removes toxic to hummer micro-nutrients, like iron!
Bullies: If you spend any time observing hummers in the spring and summer, you’ll soon notice that it isn’t all sugar and hibiscus being a hummingbird, bullying is a fact of life. Bullying isn’t the right word, as the males are engaging in the age-old rite of defending their territory and impressing the females. Biologists think that the female chooses her mate, and will up her chances of successful egg laying by breeding with more than one male. Why the aggression in the fall? That hasn’t been studied! It could have something to do with the fact that all hummers have to double their weight to survive their migration flight. To give your hummers some more peace while feeding, cluster 2-4 feeders within a 10-15 foot area. If you still see aggression, set up a second cluster!
I hope you will follow these simple guidelines so that come Spring, you will be greeted by a hungry, and expectant hummer returning to his favorite feeder, yours!