Seeing a hummingbird for the first time is a startling, yet delightful moment. At first glimpse, the tiny thing darting between flowers looks more like a giant bee buzzing back and forth than a bird. And who ever heard of a bird drinking nectar from flowers and sugar water from hanging feeders? Looks like a bee, eats like a bee, even sounds like a bee — but it’s a hummingbird.
Hummingbirds may be hard for a child to understand but as adults, we appreciate and admire their uniqueness. Their return each spring is highly anticipated, evident by all the hanging feeders — red, ready and waiting.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the most common species in Alabama, usually migrate back into our area beginning in April or early May. During their daily activity, hummingbirds burn a tremendous amount of calories and usually feed about four times an hour. They have tubular tongues they extend deep inside flowers to reach nectar. Insects also make up a small portion of their diet.
Hummingbirds are best seen with, and are easily attracted to, feeders. Many types of feeders are commercially available and most work well, although a feeder with a “bee guard” is best because it prevents bees from using the feeder. If too many bees are attracted to the feeder, hummingbirds will not use it.
Feeders are filled with nectar solution that is either purchased or made at home. There is no evidence that hummingbirds need any nutrients other than pure, white table sugar, so to make it at home, mix 1 part table sugar with 4-5 parts warm water. Warm water makes the sugar dissolve faster. Allow the solution to cool before filling the feeder.
Never use honey as a substitute for sugar in the solution as hummingbirds cannot digest honey. They will eat a honey-based solution but they will soon die from lack of nutrition. Honey may also transmit a fungus lethal to hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, but artificial food coloring does not have to be added to the sugar water solution — most feeders have red on them. Once hummingbirds find the feeders, they will remember the location and return often, even year after year.
Be sure to keep feeders clean. Rinse them with vinegar and hot water at least once a week, even if some solution is left. Avoid using detergents. Placing feeders in the shade away from direct sunlight will help keep the feeding solution from becoming moldy, which can be harmful to hummingbirds. Discard old solution and store extra fresh solution in the refrigerator.
Once one hummingbird begins to use a feeder, others are often attracted as well. Males will set up territories around a feeder and defend it, not allowing other hummingbirds to use it. The aerial combat that follows can be entertaining. If the combat gets too intense, put up another feeder or two on the other side of the yard to limit confrontations. A general rule is to separate feeders by at least six feet, so one bird does not dominate all of them.
If ants are attracted to your feeder, coat the monofilament line (used to hang the feeder) with vegetable oil, which will keep ants from climbing down the line. Coating the area around the feeder openings with petroleum jelly may help prevent wasps, yellow jackets and bees, which are also attracted to the sugary substance, from getting a foothold on the feeder.
Planting flowers around your home is also a good way to attract hummingbirds to the yard and garden. Red flowers are most effective — salvia, petunia or trumpet vine, for example, should attract hummingbirds. Many other red flowers grow well in Alabama and will lure hummingbirds to your yard.
Feeding and watching hummingbirds is possibly one of the most entertaining and relaxing things you can do this summer. When it gets too hot to work in the yard or garden, just pour yourself a glass of sweet tea, sit out on the porch swing and watch the show.
For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extension office or visit www.aces.edu.
Shane Harris is an Extension Agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.