NC Culture would like to extend a huge thank you to Cindi Poole Photography for allowing us to use her beautiful captures of these birds in our state. You can find Cindi on Facebook, where she shares a variety of NC photos
In North Carolina, our most common hummingbird is the ruby throat, and they are eagerly anticipated each year once the migration from Mexico and Panama begins. These birds are tropical, although we do have some that winter over on our banks. Migration has already begun and we are seeing reports of sightings in our state. You can see the migration map at Hummingbirds.net.
Hummingbirds have no sense of smell, and depend on visibility for feeding alternatives. This is why you most commonly see red associated with the feeders available in stores…the contrast with the habitat stands out well. One thing that I often do is drape a red towel or an inexpensive plastic red tablecloth on any nearby bushes..it’s like putting up a big banner saying “food here”. They also prefer sunny spots, so keep that in mind when hanging your feeders.
Which brings us to the food. Please, under no circumstances, should you purchase the red nectar sold in stores. The red dye is not good for them, nor is it necessary…the red of the feeder and any other markers you put out will be plenty of lure. You can find a list of 5 top reasons why not to use the dyed nectar, or to add dye yourself, from The Zen Birdfeeder. However, one I want to bring special attention to is that the dye is usually Red Dye #40, a dye that is not even recommended for children in Europe, as it is petroleum based.
To make your food at home, here is a very simple and efficient recipe. I have seen pros and cons to both boiling or using extremely hot water, so we will not go into that here. The main thing is to make sure the sugar, and this should be white table sugar, is dissolved. To achieve that, I personally always boil my water. Plus, it has the added benefit of removing chlorine if you are on city water
Your basic recipe? This excerpt from The Wild Bird Shop not only gives you the recipe, but also explains why it is important not to use honey, syrup, or any of the other things we have heard of substituting.
“Mix 4 parts water to 1 part table sugar in a pan. For example, use 1 cup sugar to 4 cups water. Make sure to use cane sugar only. If it doesn’t say cane on the label it is probably beet sugar. I know of nothing harmful about using beet sugar, but a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that the birds strongly prefer cane sugar. Do not use honey, Jell-O, raw sugar, corn syrup, turbinado, molasses or brown sugar. Especially do not use artificial sweeteners. Putting hummingbirds on a diet will kill them. They burn prodigious amounts of energy for their size and need real sugar. Do not use red food coloring. It is unnecessary and can harm the little hummers even in low concentrations because they eat so much nectar. If your feeder isn’t red, tie a red ribbon on it as described in the Feeders section, above. Do not add anything else that you might think of. Just sugar and water, that’s all.
Bring to a boil then remove from the heat. Stir it while it is heating until all of the sugar is dissolved. Don’t boil it for long because that will change the ratio as water is boiled off. The reason for boiling is not to make syrup, but to drive out the chlorine in the water and to kill mold and yeast spores that might be in the sugar. This will help make the nectar last longer both in the feeder and in your refrigerator.” (The Wild Bird Shop)
You can make a large batch and keep stored in your fridge for quick fill-ups, too. This is especially handy to know if you like to travel, and makes it much easier for a house-sitter to keep up with.
Your “nectar” can spoil very quickly in hot weather, and that is not something you want. It should always be clear, and once it begins to cloud, remove it immediately (this is where having a batch on hand in the fridge comes in handy). Hummingbirds will not consume spoiled liquid, and you may have made all your efforts in vain if you allow spoilage to happen, as the hummingbirds will move on to a more hospitable spot.
Which brings us to the cleanliness of the feeder. This is very, very important, so please pass the information on. Hummingbirds are susceptible to a problem called “fungal tongue infection (hummingbird candidiasis) that can be caused by feeding from a dirty feeder. It’s a horrid condition and your hummingbird will slowly starve to death, as the tongue swells and they are unable to feed. Far too many novice hummingbird lovers have been shocked to find birds suffering from this perched near their feeders, unable to drink, only to discover that they themselves were responsible, by not taking a pro-active stance on keeping the nectar fresh and the feeders free of mold.
You will notice, when nectar starts to turn, that also edges around the actual feeding spot may be turning black…that means time to clean! I personally give my feeders a good cleaning each and every time I refill, and I keep a tiny little bottle brush on hand for getting those hard to reach spots. Persistent cleaning each time you refill also slows down the fungal growth. The jury seems to be out on using detergent or not, with about equal support for both sides. If you do use soap, be sure to rinse all soap residue thoroughly from the feeder. However, most sites I have visited recommend using a water and vinegar solution. The same applies here..be sure to rinse extremely thoroughly to remove residue.
The feeders themselves can present another problem..bees, wasps, and ants! After years of battling the ants, which can get right up inside the feeders, this year I invested in an inexpensive ant moat, and so far so good, and it didn’t break the pocketbook. Mine were found at Lowe’s, and consist of a hanger below with a screw coming in from the top, meeting in the middle of the moat. Fill the moat with water, and suspend your feeder below, and you are good for go. For making a homemade moat, just google ant moats..there are many home solutions that folks have been happy with.
For bees and wasps, that is a different story. To help deter them, avoid feeders with the little plastic yellow designs. Bees and wasps are attracted to the color yellow. If that is your only option in your area, you might want to remove the yellow part to save yourself some headache. One word of caution here: do NOT coat the opening with oil or anything slippery. Although it will keep the bees from swarming onto the feeder, there is a good chance your hummingbird will also encounter it. A better choice might be to invest in a bee guard if this is a problem in your area. The hummingbirds will be able to access the nectar, but the bees and wasps will be thwarted, and your nectar will last longer.
The variety of feeders is endless, although depending on your region, only one style might be available locally. Hummingbirds tend to develop favorites for some reason, and I can say without reservation that the small tube type feeders are the most popular in my yard. The drawback here is in fact the small size, as the hummingbirds like them so much, they empty them quickly! You can also opt for feeders with or without perches. The birds do not need the perches to feed, but it is enjoyable to see these busy souls motionless once in a while. Being tropical birds, they also like moving water, so a fountain is something many folks have invested in. Kmart has a red moving water fountain that is very popular, with an almost washboard type surface. This link gives an example of this fountain: Kmarts Red Fountain.
The following photo may look cloudy, but I assure you it is not. My tube feeder is very old and is plastic, hence the cloudy look, but with the preference they have for this style, it goes up year after year.
The nests are extremely small and often hard to spot, and usually have two eggs in them, as three babies would be too much for the mother to care for. Made from a variety of material, including spider webs, lichen is often incorporated into the nest, helping to blend the nest into the background. Although I could not find a nest photo that best represented this in the free domain, please see Operation Ruby Throat for two excellent nest photos, along with more in-depth information for those who want to try feeding these lovely birds this year.
While the hanging feeders are fun, don’t forget to plant pollinators for added incentive. Below is a suggested list of flowers you can easily plant, and for even more choices that include trees and shrubs, see the suggested ones at NCSU.
More excellent suggestions? See below.
Red Hot Poker
Enjoy your hummingbirds, and don’t forget to share your photos with us on our Facebook page!