Ruby Ready

Ladies and gentlemen, start your feeders



By Susan Campbell

It’s that time, folks! North Carolina’s smallest bird, those winged jewels that have spent the winter in the tropics, are now headed back our way. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will be returning to gardens and feeders by mid-April. So, it’s time to get ready!

First and foremost, in spite of what you may have heard, these tiny dynamos are mainly insectivorous. Bugs of all kinds make up the majority of their diet. Anything small enough to fit down the hatch will be consumed throughout the day — followed up by a nectar chaser every now and then. Therefore, it is critical to be judicious year-round in your use of pesticides and herbicides, so that the invertebrates hummingbirds depend on will thrive.

Consider planting for your hummers. There is a wide array of plants that are easy to grow that will get the birds’ attention. The best are obviously native species such as trumpet creeper, coral honeysuckle, cardinal flower, bee balm, columbine and even butterfly weed. There are loads of non-native perennials that are a wonderful (and not invasive) addition to your hum-garden, like many of the salvias, Mexican sunflower, sultan’s turban and lantanas. Do not be surprised if you see a hummer hovering around the vegetable garden when your okra starts to bloom or your basil goes to seed. Keep in mind that the thicker the vegetation is in your yard, the buggier it will tend to be — a good excuse to let things go wild in at least a section of the property. And dense vegetation will also provide the birds with necessary cover for roosting, as well as protection from the elements and potential predators.

Of course, many of us have augmented our yards with sugar water feeders that will bring the tiny birds into view. While there are many brands on the market — with more being added every season — they vary in quality and effectiveness. No matter what kind you choose, be sure it can be opened up for complete cleaning and that the ports are large enough (at least 3 mm) not to cause bill injury. Hummer feeders need to be cleaned with hot water (no detergent) at least every three days during the heat of the summer, so easy access for effective scrubbing and rinsing is critical. A 10 percent bleach solution is fine later in the season when mildew can be an issue. Just be sure to rinse all of the parts very thoroughly before refilling.

The best choice for offering homemade nectar is a saucer-style feeder, such as a HummZinger, that pops apart for easy cleaning and refilling. The beauty of these feeders is that they do not tend to seep or drip and, as a consequence, are less likely to attract the bees and wasps that reservoir-style feeders do. Also, many designs now have a built-in ant moat that creates an effective barrier to those even tinier sugar-loving critters that abound in our area during most of the year.

Please avoid store-bought mixes. They can contain additives and preservatives that may not be good for the birds. A simple mix of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water is all you need to use. Adding color to the fluid is not recommended, nor is it necessary. Red dye is usually a petroleum-based compound that the birds cannot digest. Besides, ruby-throateds have phenomenal color vision and can see the red components of your feeder from over a half a mile away.

Last but not least, although hummingbirds do not use conventional bird baths, they do need to keep their feathers clean. There are specialty fountains on the market that are very shallow and may attract them to bathe, though it’s more likely you will see a ruby-throated rinsing off by making passes through your sprinklers. You could even have a close encounter with an overheated ruby-throated if you happen to be watering with a hose during the heat of the day. OH

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at

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