SPRING IS ON THE WING. The hummingbird migration map at hummingbirds.net is starting to show those little colored dots that tell us ruby-throated hummingbirds are being seen in North America. So far they are being seen only along the southern edge of the United States, along the coastline in Texas, Louisiana, and other southernmost states. But with their arrival on the continent, most of us can look forward to seeing our friends within the next month or so.
Male hummers arrive ahead of the females and establish territories around good food sources. Once they've found a good territory, they return year after year. So it's important to make sure your feeder is already out when the males start to arrive.
The best feeder
Time to buy a new feeder? The "dish" style, shown in the photo above, has a lot of advantages over the more common "bottle" style. In the dish style, the feeding holes are in the lid (the red part of the feeder shown in the photo) while the nectar fills a container (the clear plastic dish under the red lid) that screws onto the lid. One advantage of this style is that the dish and lid are both easy to clean--unlike the bottle in the bottle style, which usually can be cleaned thoroughly only with a bottle brush.
Another advantage is that dish-style feeders don't drip. Also, this style of feeder tends to discourage wasps and bees, as their short tongues can't reach the nectar in the dish. (Unfortunately, this sometimes encourages them to crawl into the dish in search of food. However, on the whole I think you are less likely to see wasps and bees hanging around this style of feeder than around many of the bottle styles.)
It's fun, though not essential, to have a hummingbird feeder that attaches to a window with a suction cup. Hummers are very brave and will not be discouraged from feeding even if you stand on the other side of the window to watch them.
Perches are also nice to have. Hummers don't need them, as they can hover while feeding. However, if perches are available the hummers will use them. This lets them rest and gives you a better look at the birds while they're feeding.
Before the hummers arrive, you'll want to be sure to have a big bag of plain white sugar. Mix tap water and sugar in a ratio of 4:1 (four cups water to one cup sugar) and store it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. It's no longer considered necessary to boil the water before you mix up a batch of "hummer juice"--just be sure you change the liquid often.
There's no need to add anything to this liquid. With their extremely high energy needs, hummingbirds use sugar water to meet calorie requirements. But they get most of their nutrients from a diet of small flying insects, which they hunt on the wing.
In fact, attempts to "improve" the standard formula for hummingbird food are likely to do more harm than good. Well-meaning efforts to enrich the liquid can unintentionally introduce ingredients that are not good for the birds and/or encourage the growth of molds and bacteria.
Once you start feeding the birds, be prepared to change the sugar water every few days, as often as daily in warm weather. Molds and bacteria are probably the biggest threat to feeder-using birds, so probably the most important thing any bird lover can do is to make sure the food is always fresh.
You will also want to be sure to keep the feeders full throughout the breeding season and until there are an abundance of nectar-producing flowers in bloom.
And finally, you'll want to do whatever you can to attract small flying insects to your garden, as these are an important part of the hummingbird diet. Like almost all birds, hummingbirds eat a lot of insects and also feed a lot of insects to their young.
I'll return with a discussion of planting for hummingbirds soon. In the meantime, to learn more about hummingbird migration, see this page at hummingbirds.net For a longer and more detailed discussion of hummingbird feeding, see this post of mine from last year.