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It's Time for Hummingbirds

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How you can attract these bright messengers of spring to your yard

Everyone, it seems, has their own favorite harbinger of spring. For some it’s the sight of those first crocuses peeking their heads through the snow; others see spring when the glacier lillies appear in our wild places, while quite a few count it spring when the days stick around longer than the nights—regardless of the temperature or the type of precipitation falling from the sky. But for quite a few people in our neck of the woods, it isn’t really spring until the hummingbirds reappear from their winter sojourn in Central America. Rufous, ruby-throated or Calliope, there’s no local hummingbird specie that residents are unwilling to attract through various means. And if you want dozens of little buzzing birds humming the song of spring to you on your own front porch, it’s time to get those feeders out.

While it might seem that there’s nothing easier than hanging up a feeder and filling it with a little sugar water—and doing so will attract more hummingbirds to your house than seems possible—if you’re truly interested in keeping these birds around then keeping those feeders clean is crucially important.

Feeders should be cleaned every single time they’re refilled. Soap is not necessary (and there is some evidence that the birds don’t care for the taste of soap residue) but hot water is essential and, if there is any trace of mold (black spots), bleach. In addition, it’s generally recommended that you scrub your feeders at least once each month with bleach and water.

While a group of hummers can empty a feeder quickly, discard any syrup that appears cloudy, a sign that the water is fermenting, as fermenting sugars can kill these friendly birds. The recommended water/sugar ratio is one part sugar to four parts water; in nature, the nectar produced by the hummingbirds’ favorite flowers averages about 21 percent sugars.

And about that sugar: white sugar works just fine for hummingbirds, and arguably better than the “natural” sugars you buy at health food stores. That’s because the less-refined turbinado, or “raw cane” sugar can have a much higher iron content than white sugar, which can be fatal to hummingbirds. Never put honey in a hummingbird feeder either, as it can ferment rapidly, and red food coloring is also unnecessary, and may well be detrimental to the birds’ health.

By the way... bees and wasps will also be attracted to your feeder, and they particularly like the color yellow. So if there is any yellow on your feeder, you might want to paint it a different color before you hang it. The bees and wasps will likely find your feeder anyway, but there’s no sense in drawing a bulls-eye on it if you have it located close to your house.

Despite the way a feeder will attract hummingbirds, nectar is only a portion of a hummingbird’s diet—like most birds, they need protein, and they get it by eating insects and small grubs. 

If you’re willing to put a little more work into attracting hummers to your yard, consider planting a hummingbird garden, or even just adding plants they will appreciate. As an added benefit, most will also provide a food source for bees and butterflies.

There are a huge variety of plants that appeal to the little creatures, so check with your local nursery to learn about which are most appropriate for your growing zone.

Anise hyssop is an interesting perennial to plant for hummingbirds, said to grow well in our predominantly Zone 6 area. It has a spiky, lavender flower that grows at its top, grows between 3 and 5 feet tall, and its branches give off a mint/licorice scent. As a bonus, the flowers are edible and can be added into your spring salads or brewed into a tea. And while I’m not quite sure I believe it, the plant is said to be resistant to deer, a trait most gardeners in this area will appreciate.

Other perennial flowers favored by hummingbirds that grow well in our area are bee balm, lupine, penstemon and columbine. The secret to a successful hummingbird garden, however, is to choose a variety of plants that bloom at different times throughout the season, ensuring a steady source of food for these busy birds. Again, your local nursery professional is your best source for information on what and when to plant.

So if you’re ready to jump on the hummingbird bandwagon, mix up some nectar or grow your own, and get ready to welcome the return of these delightful, humming, speedy birds from their southern sojourn.

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Landon Otis

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