How to keep hummers happy

  Dear HCN,

The story about the remarkable concentrations of migrating hummingbirds at Jesse Hendrix's home outside Nogales, Ariz., has piqued a great deal of interest in attracting and feeding these living jewels (Heard around the West, HCN, 9/13/99). The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory offers the following recommendations for making hummingbirds feel at home in your yard:

* Create good habitat, starting with native shrubs and trees. The average "lawn planet" yard is a wasteland as far as they're concerned.

* Plant hummingbird-pollinated flowers, preferably species native to your area. Roses and marigolds might catch a hungry hummingbird's attention, but they don't produce the right type or quantity of nectar to satisfy this very selective clientele.

* Use natural pest-control methods. Chemical pesticides indiscriminately kill the tiny insects and spiders that hummingbirds eat and may put the birds at risk of secondary poisoning. Spiders are important allies in the war on insect pests, and their webs provide female hummingbirds with silk to build their nests.

* Use nature's nectar recipe to fill feeders. Natural nectar contains little more than water, sugars (mainly sucrose, a.k.a. white sugar) and small amounts of mineral salts, with no preservatives or flavors, and no dyes. Hummingbirds are attracted by the color red, but red plastic on the feeder will do the trick. One part plain granulated sugar dissolved in four parts ordinary tap or bottled drinking water creates a solution remarkably like natural nectar. Solution made with boiling water or heated briefly in the microwave spoils less quickly (always allow to cool before serving). Don't use honey, which can cause a fatal fungus infection, or commercial mixes, which are at best a waste of money and at worst a potential hazard to the birds' health.

* Put out fresh solution every two-to-four days (more often in hot weather), and clean feeders thoroughly at least once a week. Selecting a feeder design that's easy to clean and refill will save time and prevent hygiene problems. If you're going to be away from home for a week or more, take your feeders down before you leave and replace them on your return so the birds don't drink fermented solution.

* If you live where hummingbirds are absent in winter, take your feeders down in fall about a week after the usual last sighting date to give tardy migrants another chance to fill up on their way south (check with your local nature center or Audubon Society for migration schedules). Contrary to urban folklore, feeders will not prevent normal, healthy hummingbirds from migrating, and residents of the desert Southwest and Pacific Coast may host a few hummingbirds year round.

For more information on these fascinating birds, visit SABO's Web site at or send a long SASE to: SABO Hummer FAQs, P.O. Box 5521, Bisbee, AZ 85603-5521.

Sheri Williamson

Bisbee, Arizona
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