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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