Commentary: How to feed the hummingbirds

The male Rufous Hummingbirds arrived in Cordova according to schedule this year. The first sighting reported to me was on April 23 out at Boswell Bay, and then being spotted in town the next day. The females arrived the morning of April 27, exactly a week behind the males who have immediately started defending territories in anticipation of the girls’ arrival. The late winter/spring snow pack had me worried that it would depress the bushes and keep the birds back. But the last few weeks of warm weather brought the snow pack down, releasing the willows and berry bushes to begin to bud, the first important food source for the hungry migrant — they feed on the sticky sap and bugs attracted to the catkins. Now is the time to hang your feeders so you can enjoy these bold and beautiful little birds all season.

No need for fancy mixes, dyes or attractants, some of which can actually harm the birds. Just cane sugar and clean, fresh water is all you need.

Sugar to water ratio: one part sugar to four parts water.

Dissolve the sugar in hot water and let cool to room temperature before filling feeders. Refrigerate the unused portion. Change the syrup at least once a week, or if it looks dirty.

Do not use honey or sugar substitutes, or increase the recommended sugar amount. Hummingbirds cannot process other types of sugar, and too high of a sugar ratio can harm hummingbirds’ liver and kidneys.

Keep feeders clean! Mold and contamination can cause a host of diseases and illnesses.

To clean, disassemble your feeder and soak the parts in warm soapy water. Scrub with a bottle brush, then rinse well. Let it dry completely before refilling with syrup. For very dirty feeders, soak in hot water and Oxyclean. Scrub and rinse thoroughly in clean water before refilling. A good rule of thumb is: don’t let the birds drink what you wouldn’t drink yourself!

Hang feeders in a sheltered spot out of the wind and close to trees or bushes where the birds can take cover. If near a window, check for a reflective glare that might cause a bird to crash into it. A decal placed on the window to break up the reflection will usually solve that problem.

Being in bear country is also a consideration in where, how, and how many feeders are hung. Persistent black bears cause havoc. Once they get a taste of that sugar syrup, they will come back for more. Utilizing a high porch overhang, feeders strung on high wires between trees, or a couple of noisy dogs may be all you need to keep the bruins from raiding the tasty treats.

Once the birds have found your feeder, they will remember its location and will return each year to that exact spot. The males can be very greedy and may guard a feeder, chasing all others away. To solve this, hang two or three other feeders 10 to 20 feet away from the one being guarded, leaving the cluster for the females and young.

Make your yard attractive to hummingbirds by planting their favorite native flowering plants. Rufous hummingbird feeds on native flowers such as blueberry, salmonberry, columbine, monkey flower and burnet. Whatever you plant, be sure it isn’t invasive to our area. For more information on how to attract hummingbirds through plantings, go to westernhummingbird.org/gardens.

The male rufous hummingbirds will be here for barely two months, just enough time to love as many ladies as possible before heading back south. The males do not help with nest building or childcare, but leave by the beginning of July just as the fledgling birds begin to show up on the feeders. The adult females and young of the year will stay for a few more weeks before migrating out by August.

Kate McLaughlin is a USGS Certified Master Class Hummingbird Bander and operates the Alaska Hummingbird Project, Inc., a 501c(3) nonprofit. When not chasing hummingbirds, she works for the US Forest Service’s Cordova Ranger District office as the customer service representative. She can be reached at alaskahummingbird@yahoo.com.