Plants to keep birds humming

Posted Aug. 28, 2010, at 12:55 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

I’ll never forget my introduction to ruby-throated hummingbirds when I first moved to Maine.

I was living in Blue Hill and had been invited over to my landlord and landlady’s house. A hummingbird feeder stood at the edge of their deck, and I was thrilled to see it was being used frequently. They encouraged me to put up my own, which I did, never expecting the birds would realize it was there.

They found it within a couple of days, and I was treated to views of the jeweled dynamos as they zipped and sipped. The burr of their wings was a bit unnerving at first, especially if I heard them before I saw them; the sound was too reminiscent of a bee — a very large, angry bee.

In late summer, as the weather began to cool, hummingbird activity ratcheted up to a fevered pitch. Aerial dogfights erupted frequently as the birds competed over feeder rights. As the house I was living in was surrounded by woods and in short supply of nectar-producing plants, the feeder became a focal point of contention. I added another feeder to reduce the competition, but what I really should have done was begin a network of perennial beds.

As I got more interested in birding and learned more about hummingbirds, I realized the use of feeders was a very mixed blessing.

First, I learned that commercial nectar mixes were unnecessary; a simple mixture of four parts water and one part plain white sugar (boiled, then allowed to cool, obviously), most closely matched a flower’s real nectar — although it does not provide all of the nutrients present in it. In addition, the red dye often added to commercial mixes, while also unnecessary, was possibly dangerous to a hummingbird’s health.

Second, I was horrified to learn that mold and fungus quickly grow if the sugar-water solution was not replaced every few days (more often in very hot weather), and the feeder itself washed and disinfected every time. The solution also will begin to ferment, and can kill hummingbirds by causing liver enlargement.

Third, I learned something I already had observed: Competition at feeders is extreme and very stressful for the birds.

In the past, I’ve tended to time my writing about hummingbirds with early spring, but a recent e-mail from a reader prompted this column.

Liz Jordan of Hampden wrote to ask whether hummingbirds seemed to be fewer in number this year, and if improper maintenance of feeders can indeed kill hummingbirds. She also asked for recommendations of nectar-producing plants.

While there seems to be a dearth of hummingbirds in my own neighborhood, I cannot say for sure whether this indicates any type of actual population decline. This summer has been exceptional — warm, sunny, not too much or too little rain in general. It could be that nectar-producing plants are so plentiful that hummingbirds just aren’t visiting feeders much and are visiting many different locations of plantings to avoid unnecessary competition.

As mentioned, poorly maintained feeders can harm hummingbirds, so it is best to plant a variety of flowering plants, shrubs and trees that will bloom at different times throughout the season. Putting in shrubs and trees has the added benefit of creating cover and nesting places for hummers, as well.

Some examples of common nectar-producing plants are: fuchsia, petunia cultivars with single blossoms, hollyhocks, day lilies, hosta, bee balm, and apple and crab apple trees, to name just a few. The complete list can be found at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension website, http://www.umext.maine.edu/onlinepubs/htmpubs/nectarplants.htm.

An informative fact sheet on hummingbird biology and how to maintain feeders properly also may be found at the site. Go to http://www.umext.maine.edu/onlinepubs/htmpubs/7152.htm. Another website, http://www.nehummers.com/, has information on hummingbird migration and first-last sightings of the year.

As summer wanes and hummingbirds begin building up reserves for their long southward migration, it may be helpful for them to supplement their natural diet by providing feeders, but only if you make a commitment to be scrupulously careful in maintaining them.

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