The Care and Feeding of Hummingbirds

By Anita Sanchez

Everyone loves hummingbirds. A highlight of any trip to the Arboretum is a chance to see a hummingbird zip past, levitate in front of a blossom, and then zoom away like a little feathered drone.

Many of us delight in these fascinating birds and want to feed them. But if you’re thinking about doing so, think carefully about what food you’re offering these tiny, fragile bodiesResearch shows that red dyes in artificial nectar are not good for hummingbirds. Although it’s hard to prove that red dye is bad for them, many .

wildlife rehabilitators report weakened hummingbirds with red-colored droppings. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states: “There is very compelling anecdotal information from experienced, licensed rehabbers that hummers who have been fed dyed food have higher mortality and suffer tumors of the bill and liver.”

Even if you skip the dye, there’s another problem with the feeders. They’re not for the lazy. All reputable sources (the Audubon Society, Cornell, and the National Wildlife Federation, for example) agree that the feeders must be properly maintained. You can’t just stick them on the porch and forget them. Since sugary water is an excellent medium for the growth of pathogens, it easily develops mold and mildew. And black mold can cause a horrid infection in hummers. It’s called candidiasis, and it causes a swollen tongue, leading to a death of slow starvation. It can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her young when she feeds them.

So, you have to clean the feeder. A lot. Every two days in hot weather. Here’s what one bird seed company’s website advises for each cleaning: “Disassemble the feeder as much as possible so every nook and cranny can be effectively cleaned, and use small scrub brushes to be sure corners and crevices are all cleaned. Allow the feeder to dry completely before refilling, which will help minimize any residual contamination.” Are you kidding me? How many people actually take the trouble to do all that?

There are better ways to help the hummingbirds. One way is to provide flower nectar from real flowers. Hummingbirds have excellent color vision and are especially attracted to the color red. Their long beaks are adapted to be inserted into tube-shaped flowers. (I once saw a hummingbird fly over to a wall-mounted fire extinguisher and try to suck nectar from the tube-shaped nozzle.) So when you’re gardening this summer, consider hummingbird favorites: bee balm (Monarda), phlox, geraniums -- anything brightly colored (especially red or pink) with tube-shaped flowers. Also think of hanging baskets with plants such as fuchsia.

And it’s not just about the flowers. Hummingbirds don’t live by nectar alone: they also need to eat small spiders and other insects. Leave unmowed spots at the lawn edges where they can get this needed protein. All of those messy-looking patches can be good foraging grounds for a mother hummer looking for nutritious baby food.

The more blossoms and bugs there are in your yard, the better chances are that you will be seeing these birds in their miraculous flight. Careful thought and planning can be beneficial to the hummingbirds – and you!

Summer 2019

Volume 37 , Number 2

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