Sugar smiles

When people come over for the first time they are always surprised by our … hummingbirds. We have a bunch of them and they are unrelated to cycling.

Hummingbirds basically enhance everything. When you are eating dinner and you look out the window, there are 20 or 30 hummingbirds buzzing around the feeder. When you get up in the morning and drink coffee, there are 20 or 30 hummingbirds buzzing around the feeder. When you look up from a book, there are 20 or 30 hummingbirds buzzing around the feeder.

They make a lot of racket, but like little kids in your home, it is the best kind of racket.

How do I get me some hummingbirds?

People sometimes ask this, and it reminds me of the American tourist who was in London watching a gardener mow a lawn.

“Wow,” said the American. “That is the most lush lawn I have ever seen. How can I get my lawn to be that lush?”

“It’s not so difficult,” said the gardener. “You seed the lawn, keep it watered, and you cut it like so every week. Then after 200 or maybe 250 years, it looks like this one.”

Hummers don’t take 250 years, but if you want to have them swarming at your feeding, they do take a bit of work.

This is the feeder we use. The birds prefer it by far to others we have tried. Getting the feeder is the easy part, though. Here’s what I’ve learned over the four years or so that we’ve been building our hummingbird community.

  1. The feeder must always have nectar in it. This is a problem in the beginning because you will have few birds and the nectar spoils after a couple of days in the sun. My suggestion is that you only fill it ¼ way, then dump it after 2 days, 3 max. You can taste it to check; it is just a homemade mixture of table sugar and water.
  2. If you miss even a day, or have the feeder out with spoiled nectar even once, the birds remember and will not come back for a while. They are opportunistic feeders and never rely on one source. It’s like drinking a glass of spoiled milk. You don’t want to try the next carton just because it “might” be fresh.
  3. Try to put the feeder somewhere not exposed. Under an eave is good because then they can feed even on rainy days. The don’t like to be out in the open for long periods of time as it exposes them to predators.
  4. They especially like it if the feeder is near a tree so they can feed, zip over to the tree and hide/recover, then zip back.
  5. Put the feeder somewhere you can reach it relatively easily. This is crucial because if you really build up a local population, you’ll be filling it twice a day, four times a day during spring migration.
  6. There are at least three populations of hummingbirds in LA, and three species (Anna’s and Allen’s, rarely Rufous). The populations are: spring migrants, fall migrants, and year-round residents. For about five weeks in spring, and 7 weeks in fall, the number of birds will triple or quadruple. They feed in especially huge numbers at dusk, and also pretty vigorously at dawn.
  7. One reason it takes years to develop a community is because if you always keep your feeder stocked and fresh, the parents will show it to their babies. They raise up to three clutches per nesting season. Those babies will be imprinted with your feeder from birth and if there is habitat, will in turn nest near the feeder, raising their babies on your nectar as well. In other words, it is generational, and generations take time. After about three years all the birds in the neighborhood will know about your feeder and put it on their daily beat. It’s no different from a hip coffee shop.
  8. In the beginning, one male way monopolize the feeder and attack all other birds. Don’t worry. At the first big migration, he will be outnumbered and run off, and the feeder will become communal. We had just such a bully who we nicknamed “Trump.” Then came fall migration elections, and he was kicked out of office.
  9. Never let your feeder become dirty. It will make the birds sick. Clean it with a kitchen brush every time you fill it. The whole process only takes a couple of minutes, but you’d be surprised at how much dedication and time it requires! We now buy sugar in 50-lb. bags. That’s how much they eat from our single, 1-qt. feeder.
  10. Don’t leave your feeders untended when you leave town. Make provision to have someone come and keep them full, even if only once a day. Otherwise the birds will recognize that this is not dependable and will not make it a central feeding location. You will be able to start a new sub-category on Craigslist: “Part-time Hummingbird caretaker.”
  11. If you don’t want to make this a full-time, child-rearing obligation, just do it intermittently using only a little nectar, and be satisfied with the one or two visitors who pop by. They appreciate it and it helps them in their very hard, very short, very stressful, extraordinarily beautiful little lives. The sight of a hummingbird on your feeder also will make you HAPPY. Every single time!



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20 thoughts on “Sugar smiles”

  1. My bride and I moved from the country to the city last fall, giving up an enormous hummer population. They would show up every spring in April and leave in mid-September, flying from Venezuela to Virginia and back every year. (That’s a 2500 mile migration, by the way.) The air show every morning and evening was awesome! By all rights, they shouldn’t be able to fly and yet they can and do, better than every other bird. They’re a marvel!
    We tried to establish something in the city but the squirrels are far more aggressive and drink all the nectar and tear down the feeders.
    I miss my hummingbirds!

  2. We have a feeder front and back, and we love the hummers’ iridescent beauty and crazy aerobatic antics. Those tiny creatures are simply amazing!

    Your how-to tips are better than what we’ve read on dedicated hummingbird websites. Good!

    We’ve learned that ants are even more opportunistic than hummingbirds. They can quickly overwhelm the best-maintained feeder. Some feeders have ant moats that you fill with water to discourage ants, but the ones we’ve tried are inadequate. We’ve had better luck making our own by drilling a hole in the bottom half of a plastic water bottle, then hot-gluing it to the feeder’s hanger. Here’s a picture:

    Fun facts: Hummers burn energy so fast that at night they have to enter a state of “torpor” to reduce their metabolic rate up to 95%. Otherwise they’ll starve before sunrise. Years ago Scientific American published an article charting the amount of energy used by different modes of transportation. Freight trains and cargo ships were among the best. A bicycle ridden at 10 mph beat them all. Hummers and bees used more energy than anything else. How do they do it?

    Finally, I can hardly believe that your feeder isn’t 100% pure carbon. The shame!

    1. The hand-made water moat is brilliant, and obvious effective. Agreeing with Deb below… a moat will solve the ant thing easily, safely and effectively. Avoid adding product that will mess up the birds!

  3. Seth. Thanks so much for this. We have 2 feeders in our little garden, but the hummers only show up to one. I need to replace the other feeder and get some fresh “hummerbrew” in it. We have birds drop in regularly, but not the numbers that grace your balcony. How fun to watch them!

  4. “Never let your feeder become dirty. It will make the birds sick.”

    According to our local licensed hummingbird rehabilitator, with hummers “sick” very often means “dead”. Keep those feeders clean!

  5. To the LesB comment above: NEVER, EVER use anything sticky or oily on or near the h-bird feeder to discourage ants. It will get on the h-birds feathers, harming the bird.

    Also, rinse out feeders in dilute bleach solution. Best for taking care of bacteria that doesn’t always get scrubbed away.

    LOVE this post!

  6. Love hummingbirds. We’ve got a ton in our backyard out here in AZ. 10 year old daughter has names them. Have to be real careful when trimming trees so as not to destroy a nest.

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