By Paul A. Thomas
University of Georgia
Hummingbirds overwinter in Central and South America. Our ruby-throated hummingbirds return to most parts of Georgia in March (in Atlanta, around March 20). So that's the time to dust off the feeders.
Follow three simple steps to get hummingbirds to feed, nest and raise young in your yard.
- Buy six to eight feeders per half-acre of land.
- Place two or three in the open sunshine or near windows to attract males. A feeder on the west, south and east sides of the house work well. Each will be visited most when the sun is on it.
- Place the other feeders in the canopy of trees. The preferred height is 10 to 15 feet. You can do this by hanging a set of "S" hooks on the branches and using a pole with a hook at the end to raise the feeder.
The reason behind this is simple. Males doggedly defend their feeder, making it very hard for the females and young to feed. Females, though, search for nectar in treetops in tropical jungles and are much more comfortable feeding in semiprivacy in the canopy. Without fail, our hummingbirds nest within 15 to 20 feet of the feeders in the canopy. They prefer dogwoods, hickory and oak.
The simple maintenance rule is to fill each feeder half full and then clean and replace the sugar water every other day. Hummingbirds won't use old, cloudy, rotten sugar water. They may leave your garden in disgust.
Given eight feeders, keeping feeders fresh can be a chore if not tasked properly. We found that filling four feeders every day after dinner as part of kitchen cleanup works great, especially if you have kids that help out.
The birds get comfortable with the pattern, and since we all eat dinner, it's easier to stay on task during a busy week.
Of the several recipes for sugar water, the one we recommend is 1 part sugar to 3 parts water. This makes a 25-percent sucrose solution, very similar to the sugar content of phlox, salvia and buckeyes. Nectar-producing flowers usually range between 20-percent and 25-percent sugar. A 4-to-1 ratio is fine, but it may not have the draw a more concentrated solution has. We don't add anything else. We make up 1-gallon batches, boil it just a few minutes, let it cool and store it in the refrigerator. A gallon supplies eight feeders for two weeks on our cleaning-feeding schedule.
"Tipping" their waiters
My wife and I have been feeding hummingbirds for 13 years in Athens. Each year we see circumstantial evidence that the birds try to get our attention when their feeders are low.
This is particularly true in drought. They hover around our heads when we're working in the yard and outside windows, chirping loudly when we emerge from the house. I've seen two or three hover or sit patiently in a nearby branch while my wife changes the feeders.
The best way to look at feeding any wildlife is that once you start, you're changing their behavior,and they depend on you for the rest of the season.
Males set up territories that include food sources. Females may even take food sources into account when selecting a mate's territory.
Eliminating that source of food (say, during the hottest part of July during your three-week vacation) will likely put stress on the birds. This is particularly true if the birds are raising young or you don't have other sources of nectar and small insects, such as a butterfly- hummingbird garden or a nearby creek. Be sure to have someone feed the birds in your absence, or they may find another garden to call home.
(Paul Thomas is a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)