Among the many species reappearing now that spring is here, hummingbirds are certainly the most colourful, and a favourite of many people. Nothing says the approach of summer like the sound of these speedy creatures buzzing through the air, and the flash of sunlight on their beautiful plumage.
Many people plant flowers that are known to attract hummingbirds, which are excellent pollinators. Others put feeders up in their yard, both to feed the birds and to encourage them to visit. However, unless you take care of your feeder, you could unwittingly cause more harm than good.
Whether you use a prepared or homemade nectar in your feeder, the feeders must be cleaned and refilled on a regular basis. If they are not, the nectar can be a breeding ground for mould and fungus, which can cause serious illness and death to hummingbirds who ingest it. The most common fungal infection that can result is one that causes the hummingbird’s tongue to swell, making it impossible to feed.
Also, nectar that is left too long inside the feeder—particularly if the feeder is in direct sunlight—can ferment, which can cause liver disease in hummingbirds. Adult birds know to avoid feeders with fermented nectar, and will avoid them, but juvenile birds do not have that internal warning system.
Ideally, you should only put about three days’-worth of nectar in the feeder at a time. That way it is unlikely to develop mould or fungus, or have time to ferment (although keep an eye out in very hot, sunny weather). The feeder should then be cleaned thoroughly before it is refilled.
Do not use soap, bleach, detergent, or chlorine to clean the feeders. Very hot water and a good scrub brush should be sufficient, and will not leave any potentially harmful residue. A 50/50 water/vinegar solution can also be used if there are obvious signs of mould, but make sure to rinse the feeder very thoroughly afterward. Boiling the feeder in a pot of hot water for an hour will also clean it.
Whether you use a commercial nectar or make your own is up to you. Most commercial nectars contain a red dye, which initially attracts hummers to the presence of a feeder; but after the first visit or two they will know where it is. Almost all hummingbird feeders contain a lot of red in their construction, so if you make your own nectar, purchase feeders that are red, so you do not have to put dye in your solution. If you have older feeders that are clear, tie red ribbons around them, or use bright red nail polish on the feeding ports.
To make your own nectar, you only need water and cane sugar. Bring a pot of water to the boil, then add two parts sugar for six parts water. Keep the water boiling, and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, then turn off the heat and let the nectar cool to room temperature. Unused nectar can be stored in the fridge in a sealed container, where it will stay good for several weeks.
Never use honey, organic sugar, cane or agave syrup, brown sugar, or artificial sweeteners in homemade nectar. These sweeteners contain many natural elements that may be safe for humans but are harmful to hummers, such as iron or calcium. Also, do not use distilled water; tap water is fine.
An advantage to making your own nectar using this method is that boiling the water will slow the fermentation process. If it is clear, rather than dyed red, it will make it easier for you to notice if it has gone cloudy (a sign of fermentation) or developed white strings or black spots (mould and fungus).
Keep our feathered friends safe, and safely returning to your garden, by following these simple guides. The hummers will thank you.