How to attract hummingbirds to your yard

BIRD COLUMN FOR June 13, 2004
By Benjamin P. Burtt
Topic: How to Attract Hummingbirds to the yard

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the smallest bird found in the Eastern United States. In the spring, it leaves its tropical breeding grounds and moves northward, arriving in Central New York in early May, when the first flowers appear.

Brilliantly colored flowers in the garden will help attract this bird as it flies by. Tubular-shaped flowers will be best, particularly those that are red or orange.

While feeders for hummingbirds are discussed below, it is the flowers that catch the attention of hummingbirds. Without flowers you probably will not see very many hummingbirds at your feeder even though it is brilliantly colored.

There are more than 100 flowers that are visited by hummingbirds. Some of these are trumpet vine, azalea, morning glory, columbine, larkspur, weigela bushes and nasturtium. Others are listed at the end of this column

Hummingbirds spend much of their time amongst flowers. Insects form the major portion of the diet of the hummingbird. Most of the insects are tiny ones that are found in or on the flowers that the bird visits or on the leaves of the plant.

Hummingbirds also dart about, flycatcher fashion, to catch small insects in the air.

In addition to eating insects, the hummingbird feeds on a sweet liquid in the flowers called nectar. It contains several sugars.

They need this high calorie food for they expend a tremendous amount of energy per hour. It not only takes a lot of energy to hover in one spot, but in addition their tiny body loses heat rapidly and they must consume high calorie food just to to keep their body up to its proper temperature of 106 degrees.

Using the jargon of today's advertising, the hummingbird needs to have a "High Carb" diet!

How does the hummingbird get the nectar from the flower or the feeder? Some flowers resemble a tube and the bird must reach deep within the flower to get the nectar. The bill of the ruby-throated hummingbird is about 3/4 inch in length.

It has a long tongue with a fork on the end. This tongue can be extended over an inch beyond the tip of the bill. Thus it can reach almost 2-1/2 inches deep into a flower or feeder. The tongue very rapidly "licks" up the nectar solution.

During one of these "licks", the fork on the end of the tongue sweeps around on the inside of the flower. There is a long narrow groove or trough on each side of the tongue that helps to pick up the liquid nectar.

The tongue is pulled back into the bill where the drops of nectar are rubbed off and swallowed. The bird makes about 3 licks per second!

Why do these plants have nectar in their flowers? The nectar attracts hummingbirds . The pollen in the flower rubs off on the hummingbirds body. It is then transferred to the next flower it visits. If it is a flower of the same species, the pollen is used by the flower to produce seeds for the next generation.

The hummingbird thus gets food from the flower and the flower has its pollen transferred to a nearby flower of the same species so that the flowering plant can reproduce. The plant and the bird both benefit from the relationship!

Figure 1
CAPTION: When hummingbirds hover and probe flowers with their bill, they are generally searching for insects. They also like the nectar they find there. Consequently, they can be attracted to a sugar-water solution placed in a vial, or a small bottle that is wired to a stake or that hangs from a wire. The container should be hung at a 45 degree angle to make it easy for the hovering bird to put its beak and long tongue into the solution.

Small baby-food jars are excellent or you can use a small plastic pill bottle as shown in the above drawing.

The container should be painted red or wrapped in red or orange tape as in the image below. The brighter the color, the better. The color seems to help them find the feeder. Once they know where the feeder is, the color makes no difference. Do not add anything to the solution to give it color.

Figure 2 The feeder can be hung from a clothes line or a branch, or mounted on a stick in the garden. Hummingbirds will use a perch, but they do not need it and the perch may bring unwanted birds to feed on the solution.

Figure 3 A great variety of feeders are available at bird stores. Some have an inverted plastic bottle holding the solution. One of the best is shown just above. It is a saucer-like feeder with a perch around the edge and there are six ports or holes that the bird can use to reach the solution in the tray under the red cover.

Below is a female ruby-throated hummingbird at such a feeder in November, 2003

Figure 4.
Normally, these birds leave by the first week of October, but now and then an individual will not leave until much later.( Courtesy of Janet Allen).

The Sugar Solution

What is the proper mixture of sugar and water to use in a hummingbird feeder? Any solution which is within the range of the sugar concentration in natural nectar is satisfactory.

The following information comes from research done by Professors Reed Hainsworth and Larry Wolfe of Syracuse University, who studied the hummingbird in this country and in Central and South America. They analyzed the nectar from flowers that the hummingbirds used and determined just how much sugar there was in each one. The nectar of some flowers is as low as 8 percent sugar, while others range up to 55 percent.

Most flowers contain nectar that is about 33 percent sugar by volume.

To prepare a 33 percent solution by volume, dissolve one cup of sugar in two cups of water. Heat it to boiling to speed the dissolving and to help prevent spoilage.

Experience has shown that hummingbirds will be attracted to any sugar solution that is within the range of sugar content of the natural nectar of flowers. However, Professor Hainsworth has found that when the birds have a choice they will choose the flowers with the higher concentration. They use a lot of energy as they hover and they can get the food they need in a shorter time if it is concentrated.

When you start feeding them, use the 33 percent solution. Once they have found the feeder, then you can economize by shifting to the 20 percent solution of one cup sugar plus four cups of water. Both concentrations are well within the range of the sugar concentrations of natural nectars.

Solutions containing sugar can get moldy in time. Inspect the solution every two days. If it looks bad, discard it and wash out the feeder using a tiny brush and hot water. If you cannot get it clean with plain water, use a soap or detergent, but be especially careful to rinse out all traces of the detergent.

Once each week, regardless of the condition of the solution, discard it, wash out the feeders and put in a fresh solution.

There is a widespread myth that says that the 33 percent solution is too concentrated. The statement has been made, in some instructions for feeding birds, that this is so concentrated that it will cause liver damage in hummingbirds. No one ever gave a reference to the actual studies, if any, which led to this conclusion.

I have not been able to find any scientific study that supports this statement, and neither has Hainsworth or Dr. Charles Smith an ornithologist at Cornell University.

Since the 33 percent mixture is about the average for the natural nectars of flowers that hummingbirds visit, it seems clear that such a concentration will not harm the birds. Some of the nectars that the birds feed on are actually twice as concentrated in sugar.

Now and then insects will be attracted to the sugar. Here is a question I received recently:

Dear Mr. Burtt: How can I prevent ants from drinking the sugar solution that I put out to feed the hummingbirds? ---J. J., Liverpool.

Dear J. J:

There is a $5.00 cup-like gadget that easily keeps the ants from your feeder. Most hummingbird feeders hang from an overhead support. The cup shown here is hooked to the overhead wire and the feeder hangs from the bottom of this cup.

Figure 5
Without the cup, ants can climb down the supporting wire from above to gorge themselves on the sugar solution. With the cup installed as shown and filled with water, it is impossible for the ants to get to the feeder.

Here is how it works. The cup holds 6 oz. of water. A hook extends down from the bottom. There you hang your hummingbird feeder. A little plastic rod or pedestal rises from the center of the bottom of the cup and up through the surface of the water. On the top end of the rod is a hook that connects to the wire that supports the feeder.

Ants walking down from above come to the top of the rod at the center of the cup of water. The water forms a moat which they can not cross to reach the sides of the cup and the feeder is thus protected.

An ant cup is sold by Wild Birds Unlimited in Fayetteville 637-0710, Lee's Feed Store on Milburn Drive in Syracuse 469-1481 and the Bird House in Auburn 315-252-1850.

Just below is a photograph of one of the bottle type feeders hanging from such an ant cup.

Figure 6 AppendixWhile a few plants that attract hummingbirds were mentioned above, here are some more. They are available at many nurseries. When there is a choice of color, choose those that produce bright red or orange blossoms.

Bee Balm, Blazing Star, Bleeding Heart, Cardinal Flower, Century Plant, Columbine, Coral-Bells, Dame's Rocket, Delphinium, Fire Pink, Foxglove, Fuschia, Gilias, Hollyhocks, Impatiens, Lily, Nasturtium, Paintbrush, Penstemon, Phlox, Red-Hot Poker, Salvia, Sweet William, Yucca.