by Connie Oswald Stofko
Hummingbirds are making their way back to Western New York, said Penny Durnin of North Tonawanda, moderator of the Hummingbird Forum. They’re hungry after their long trip, so now is a good time to hang your hummingbird feeder.
Here are some of her tips for attracting hummingbirds to your garden.
When to hang your feeder
You can hang your feeder now.
Durnin suggests having the feeder up at least two weeks before you expect your hummingbirds to return. There are usually migrants already moving north and they may pass through your yard on the way to their breeding grounds. Having a feeder already available will help provide them with the necessary boost to make that last leg of their 2,000-plus mile journey.
Also, if your hummingbird does arrive early due to a change in wind speed and direction and they find your feeder, they may stay put rather than moving on to look for a different nectar source.
It blows her mind, Durnin said, that those tiny birds travel all the way from Central America over the huge Yucatan Peninsula to reach the Gulf Coast and then push northward as far as Newfoundland just to breed and raise their young.
“Having an early feeder or two just in case will certainly help these little daredevils of nature,” she said, “especially here in the northern half of the country when there is very little in bloom.”
What to feed hummingbirds
The best mix is the one closest to natural plant nectar: plain granulated white sugar and water, Durnin said. Mix one part sugar with three or four parts water. Either ratio is in line with the natural percentage of sugar found in the flowers they use.
“I usually use a 3:1 ratio in spring when they first arrive and there is little available in the way of natural blooms,” she said. “When the temps heat up and there are more plants available, I switch to 4:1, but you can safely stay with 3:1 all season if you prefer.”
She generally makes a quart at a time and refrigerates any leftover nectar. It can be refrigerated for two weeks, but Durnin makes only what she can use in one week. She pointed out that it doesn’t take that long to make a new batch.
Don’t use red dye in your homemade mix, and don’t buy nectar with red dye, Durnin said, because the dye may be harmful to the hummingbirds. You don’t need the red coloring to attract the birds; there is plenty of red on the feeder itself.
Another reason not to use the red dye is that in extremely hot and dry conditions, honey bees will access feeders, she said. The red dye may tint the bees’ honey and make it unsaleable.
Change the nectar in hot weather
Once the temperatures get into the high 70s or low 80s Fahrenheit, any nectar left in your feeder after two or three days should be dumped and the feeder cleaned and refilled with fresh nectar, Durnin said.
Nectar ferments quickly and black sooty mold can form in the feeder, making the birds sick if they do drink it.
So that she doesn’t waste nectar, Durnin uses lots of small three- or four-ounce feeders, and she fills larger feeders with only four ounces of nectar.
How to keep ants out of your feeders
Whatever you do, do not use any kind of oil or petroleum jelly on or near the feeder to keep insects away because it could come in contact with the birds and harm them, Durnin said.
The best way to deter ants from nectar feeders is with an ant moat, she said.
Ant moats can be purchased at many stores that sell feeders, or you can make your own. They are small cup-like containers that hang above the feeder and are filled with plain tap water. The ants don’t like the water so they will not cross it.
An added advantage to an ant moat is that it will attract smaller birds such as chickadees because they like to drink out of the ant moat.
“I make most of my moats because I hang so many feeders,” Durnin said. “I use the caps from large detergent bottles or fabric softener bottles. It is fun to watch the ants when you first add a moat because they will march right up to the moat and then stop dead in their tracks and turn right around and go back the way they came from.” She noted that you have to make sure you keep the water level up.
Durnin shared a link to a drawing showing how to build an ant moat for a hummingbird feeder. You can adapt the design to meet your individual needs.
Dealing with yellowjackets
Yellowjackets can be a problem later in the season, Durnin said. They usually won’t bother the feeders early in the season because they are searching for protein, but later they are looking for the sweet stuff.
She uses two methods to try to keep them away from her feeders.
The first method is to hang yellow jacket traps close to the feeder. As the yellow jackets find the trap, move the trap farther away. As an attractant, she pours a small amount of the old nectar that she is going to dump out of her hummingbird feeders into the trap.
The second method is to use a shallow bowl with nectar. Again, place it close to the feeder. The yellowjackets will gorge themselves and drown in the bowl. A tiny drop of dish soap mixed in with the nectar in the bowl ensures that they won’t fly off. The hummingbirds won’t bother the mixture of dish soap and nectar, she said. It will generally draw yellow jackets if they are in the immediate area right away, so if a hummingbird does come to check it out they will stay away because of the yellow jackets.
Plants to attract hummingbirds
If you want to attract hummingbirds to your garden, be sure to plant flowers that they like. Durnin recommends Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’.
“This plant has been a staple in my hummingbird garden for more than 10 years,” she said. “It is only hardy to Zone 7, but it is well worth including in your garden as hummers love it.” She has had plants come back from the previous year.
Find your gardening zone here.
This is just a partial list of nectar plants for hummingbird gardens from Durnin:
- Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’
- Salvia coccinea ‘Lady in Red’ (annual)
- Salvia coccinea ‘Coral Nymph’ (annual)
- Salvia coccinea ‘Forest Fire’ (annual)
- Salvia greggii ‘Cherry Chief’ (reliably hardy to Zone 7)
- Salvia greggii ‘Furmann’s Red’ (reliably hardy to Zone 7)
- Salvia microphylla wild watermelon (reliably hardy to Zone 7)
- Cuphea ignea ‘David Verity’ (can overwinter or do cuttings Zone 9 hardy)
- Cuphea micropetala (Giant cigar) (overwinter or do cuttings Zone 9 hardy)
- Russelia equisetformis Coral Fountain plant) (overwinters inside easily)
- Agastache Rupestris (hardy to Zone 5 in well-drained soil.
- Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’ (perennial)
- Lobelia cardinalis (perennial)
- Lornicera sempervirens (native honeysuckle) (perennial vine)
- Aquilegia Canadensis (native Columbine) (perennial)
- Penstemon barbatus coccineus (perennial)
All these plants do best in full sun, she said. Plants that will do well in part sun include Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’, Salvia coccineas, Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’ and columbine.