Fueling the high-energy hummingbird

Rufous hummingbird. Creative Commons photo by tomtalbott.
Rufous hummingbird. Creative Commons photo by tomtalbott.
Last Updated: 
May 7, 2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Rufous is back. If you enjoy watching this migratory hummingbird, now is a good time to put up feeders and plant nectar-producing flowers in your gardens.

Rufous hummingbirds, Oregon's most common, are found in all but the southeast corner of the state in the spring and summer, migrate south for the winter, and return north to most regions of the state in March and April, according to Dan Edge, wildlife biologist with Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Anna’s hummingbirds are year-round residents in Oregon’s Coast Range and occasionally in the Willamette Valley. Smaller populations of three other species in southern and eastern Oregon are the black-chinned, Allen’s and calliope.

Hummingbirds need to eat about 30 to 50 percent of their body weight daily to fuel their high-energy lifestyle. Their diet includes nectar for carbohydrates and insects for protein, especially important while they feed youngsters.

Some folks place a peeled banana out near their feeders to attract fruit flies for hummingbirds.

Most lawn, garden and variety stores, as well as wildlife catalog companies, sell hummingbird feeders. Red-colored feeders are best, because the birds are attracted to the color. Multi-station feeders tend to work better than glass tube and spout feeders. Choose feeders that allow you to see when the nectar becomes moldy and needs changing. Good feeders come apart easily and should be cleaned frequently.

Sweet hummingbird solutions for feeders can either be bought or made at home. Some commercially produced solutions offer a formula with vitamins and minerals. Avoid solutions with red dye or flavoring.

Homemade solutions are more economical and sometimes safer than store bought products, according to Edge.

"A hummingbird feeder solution should contain no more than one part sugar to four parts water, the highest sugar concentration of most natural flower nectars," he said.

Use this recipe for a safe sugar solution for hummingbirds: Boil four cups water and stir in one cup sugar. Boil five minutes and remove from the heat. Cover the pot. Let the covered solution cool, then fill your feeder. Store the spare solution in a clean jar in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.

Do not use honey or artificial sweeteners in a hummingbird feeder, Edge advises. "Honey encourages fungal growth and may contain botulism organisms that may kill the birds. Artificial sweeteners contain no real calories and may cause the hyperactive birds to starve."

Place a hummingbird feeder where you can watch it from a window or patio and where it can easily be reached for filling and cleaning. Space multiple feeders as far apart as possible, as the birds tend to fight over feeders hung close together. Shady spots are best because they keep the sugar solution from spoiling. Plastic domes are available to hang over feeders to protect them from the rain.

Change the syrup once a week in cooler weather and every four to five days during the summer heat.

Clean the feeder with hot water (not too much soap) and rinse well every time you change the syrup. Have someone keep your feeder filled when you go on vacation, as the birds come to depend on known sources of nectar. Keep feeders filled through October, and birds can use the food on their southward migration.

To keep ants away from your feeder, apply petroleum jelly around the openings and on the wire that suspends it. Or try moving the feeder to another area. Do not ward off insects with pesticides, which may harm the birds. Keep bees, wasps and yellow jackets away with plastic or metal bug screens.

Nectar-producing blossoms grown near feeders provide a natural supply of nectar and insects. Hummingbirds love to feed from bright red, orange or red-orange tubular-shaped blossoms such as fuschias, red-flowering currant, columbines, coral bells, salvias and penstemons. They also love larkspurs, bush and vine honeysuckles, hollyhocks, nasturtiums and petunias as well as blossoms from black locust, flowering crab apple, hawthorne and horse chestnut trees.

For more information about hummingbirds, see OSU Extension publications:

EC 1541, Attract Hummingbirds to Your Garden
EC 1570, Rufous Hummingbird

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Dan Edge