Hummingbirds are easy to attract to a backyard garden, a cinch to keep well fed, and a joy to watch. These sparkling jewels of summer are easy to love.
But if you don’t take proper care to provide healthy nectar and clean feeders, they’re also an easy bird to love to death.
Hummingbird feeders must be kept clean and free from mold and fungus, or the tiny hum-buzzers you so enjoy could develop a serious and deadly fungus infection. This infection causes the tongue to swell, making it impossible for the bird to feed.
Starvation is a slow and painful death.
“I hope that the thought of a single hummingbird’s death will motivate you to run out and grab your feeder — right now — and give it a good scrubbing.” ~Rita Rufous Sweetwater
But, just in case you need more motivation to keep your feeders clean, think of the children. A mother hummingbird can pass a fungal infection to her babies — who will also die of starvation.
Fermented nectar creates liver damage, which will also cause death. When you go on vacation this summer, take down your feeders or leave your feeders in the care of a trusted neighbor.
A Cautionary Tale
Vickie Miller, of Chehalis, recently experienced the heartbreaking loss of an Anna’s Hummingbird she called “The General.”
“The General patrolled our backyard every day for over a year and a half. One day he came home with a swollen tongue and we knew he had a fungal infection,” Miller said. “We watched our beautiful General die within 24 hours.”
“I held him in my hand, inside a warm cloth, to help ease his passing,” Miller said. “Please, warn others to keep ALL their bird feeders clean.”
“Keep your hummingbird feeder so clean, that you would drink from it yourself. You don’t like to drink from a dirty glass, neither do I … and for me, it could be fatal.” ~Rita Rufous Sweetwater
The proper care of hummingbird feeders requires a significant commitment of time and energy. For Vickie Miller, the Anna’s Hummingbirds in her backyard have become a year-round commitment.
“In the winter, I bring the feeders in at night to keep them from freezing,” Miller said. “And I’m very diligent about keeping the feeders clean and scrubbed between fillings. It is especially important to change the nectar frequently in warm weather, because the nectar will spoil.”
If you see a neighbor with a dirty feeder, Miller said, “Please, tell them about The General and his fatal fungal infection.”
The Basics of Hummingbird Care
There are several easy-to-clean feeders available at local feed stores and online.
The Dr. JB’s brand is one I have seen recently. It has a wide-mouthed glass jar that is not only easy to fill, but easy to scrub clean. The base of the feeder of that brand comes apart so you can reach into every nook and cranny to scrub away the mold and fungus.
To clean your feeder, flush the feeder with hot tap water and use a bottle brush to scrub the sides of the glass jar. Do NOT use soap; soap will leave a residue behind. (If you just can’t help yourself and must use soap, a bleach or vinegar and water solution rinse will remove soap residue.)
Inspect the feeder carefully for black mold. If you see any mold growth, soak the feeder in a solution of 1/4 cup bleach to one gallon of water for one hour.
To make nectar, mix one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water. (Do not use store bought mixtures, do not use honey or any other kind of sugar — just ordinary white cane sugar.) Bring to a quick boil, stir to dissolve the sugar, then let the mixture come to room temperature before you fill your feeder.
The boiling water will help slow fermentation of the nectar, but as soon as a hummingbird beak dips and drinks, the microorganisms carried on the beak will be transferred into the nectar.
If the nectar becomes cloudy, it has spoiled and needs to be replaced. A sugar solution can spoil in as little as two days. If your feeder is hanging in the sun or outside temperatures are high, the nectar may start to ferment in just one day.
Put out only as much nectar as your birds will consume in two or three days. If you mix up a large batch of nectar, you can keep the rest in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Western Washington Hummingbirds
The most common visitor in western Washington gardens is the Rufous Hummingbird.
The Rufous Hummingbird male is known as the most aggressive of all the hummingbirds. He does not tolerate the presence of other males at “their” feeders and will chase anyone who dares to enter their territory.
The male has a rufous head and back (sometimes sprinkled with a little green), a white breast and an orangey red gorget. The females have a green back, light rufous sides and a creamy white breast.
Anna’s Hummingbirds have been known to hang around all winter in western Washington backyards.
According to Birds of North America, the Anna’s Hummingbird has moved northward, increasing their range, taking advantage of the feeding opportunities in gardens filled with exotic, ornamental plants and the hummingbird lovers catering to their nectar needs throughout the winter.
The male Anna’s carries an impressive rose red “bib” that covers his entire head and neck. Both males and females have iridescent emerald green backs and grayish underparts.
The Calliope Hummingbird has been seen in western Washington recently (the sighting of a Calliope on the wetside always causes the Tweeters to get a little twitterpated), but it is a rare visitor here and prefers the east side and the mountains. The Calliope is smaller than the resident Rufous Hummingbirds. The males’ gorget feathers are long pinkish red streaks of color extending from under the bill and down their throat.
Hummingbirds are the sparkling jewels of summer. If you decide to commit the time and energy to care for them, they will reward you with the gift of their beauty, their easy buzzy-charms, remarkable aerial displays, and quirky antics.
If you don’t have the time or energy to commit to their scrupulous care, consider planting a hummingbird garden instead.