Hummingbirds are some of the most fascinating birds on the planet: dazzlingly colourful and metallic flying jewels.
It’s tempting to try to attract them to your home by setting out a hummingbird feeder. Unfortunately, numerous hummingbirds have died in Port Alberni over the past few weeks. Their deaths were directly a result of contaminated hummingbird feeders.
These hummers caught a fungal infection that causes their tongue to swell, to the point that they can no longer feed. Each suffered a very slow and agonizing death. Once sick, there is almost nothing we can do to save them. However, with the right knowledge, we can prevent them from becoming sick in the first place.
Here are some guidelines, so you can enjoy having hummingbirds around your home without putting them in danger:
Making hummingbird nectar
It’s really simple to make the feed solution for hummers. There is only one right way to do it.
1. Only use regular white sugar. Never use any other type of sweetener (such as brown sugar or honey or maple syrup). The reason is that white sugar is pure sucrose, whereas any other sweetener has other ingredients which may spoil and contaminate the solution – making the hummers sick.
2. Mix the feed at a ratio of three to four parts water to one part sugar (ratio of between 3:1 and 4:1). This range mimics that of flower nectar, the birds’ natural food. Some people think they are being “kind” to hummers by making it more sugary – but a solution that is too strong will dehydrate the birds. The 4:1 ratio is safest (and what I use year-round with great success) because the birds can easily poop out any excess water.
3. Mix the sugar and water in a well-cleaned pot (no grease!). Stir to dissolve the sugar while you heat it to a boil. Cool it before filling the feeder, and store any excess solution in a clean glass jar in the fridge for up to a week.
4. Don’t use food colouring! The red or yellow colours on the actual feeder will attract the birds. Artificial colours can be harmful to them.
Keeping the feeders clean and safe
Feeders can grow mould or bacteria or fungus, so they need to be cleaned with hot water. Avoid using bleach or soap; if you must use them, rinse the feeders very well. In hot weather, feeders should be cleaned every day or two, but in colder weather every three to four days should be fine.
The simpler your feeder design is, the easier it is to keep it clean and safe for the birds. The fancy multi-port ones look nice, but they have many nooks and niches where bacteria can lurk. The flat feeders with one or only a few basic holes are both easiest to keep clean and safest for the hummers.
Don’t fill your feeders very full. The more you put in, the easier it is to “forget” to clean them. Fill only to what will be consumed in a few days, so you are forced to refill and clean.
Attracting hummingbirds without feeders
If you don’t feel you have the commitment (or time) to keep your hummingbird feeders hygienic and safe, you can still attract hummingbirds to your home through their natural foods: flowers.
Hanging baskets with fuchsias and petunias or other tubular flowers make natural (and low-maintenance) hummingbird feeders. Plant lots of flowers in your yard! Hummingbirds, like bees, are pollinators. My hummers even feed from my veggie garden, on everything from tomato and rosemary flowers to bolted kale and broccoli.
Jacqueline Windh is a photographer and best-selling author, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. She lives in Port Alberni.