Search of the Week: “it is september why am i only getting female hummingbirds at my feeders…”

In juvenile plumage, young male hummingbirds like this Ruby-throated usually look a lot like their mothers. They also seem to leave the nest with chips on their shoulders.

In juvenile plumage, young male hummingbirds like this Ruby-throated usually look a lot like their mothers. They also seem to leave the nest with chips on their shoulders.

The full search was: “it is september why am i only getting female hummingbirds at my feeders and she is very aggressive”

By September, most of the migratory hummingbirds remaining at northern latitudes will be young birds of both sexes, which look like adult females except for variable amounts of pale fringing on the iridescent feathers of their backs and heads (plus a few other subtle differences, depending on species). Young males often show lines of dark spots on the throat, a pattern hummingbirders call “five-o’clock shadow.” Some young males will show bright flashes of color in their gorgets as adult feathers replace drab juvenile ones.

Though females of any age can be very aggressive and territorial, especially in migration, it’s the young males that seem to be the biggest troublemakers (as though they think they have something to prove). As long as there are still good numbers of hummingbirds around, expect the screeching, chasing, grappling, and chest-bumping to continue.

Keeping hummingbird feeders clean

Hummingbird Feeder Cleaning Kit

Brushtech Hummingbird Feeder Cleaning Kit at Amazon.com (click image)

If you’re like me, you’ve got a collection of toothbrushes, baby bottle brushes, and even well-washed mascara brushes sitting next to your kitchen sink for cleaning hummingbird feeders. The problem is that tools made for other cleaning jobs don’t always work as well for such a specialized task, so it’s nice to see a set of brushes made especially to reach the nooks and crannies of typical hummingbird feeders. The big brush in this set could even get into the enclosed bases of some of the cheapo feeder models to remove crud you can’t see.

Of all the nasties that grow on hummingbird feeders, the nastiest and hardest to control is black mold. A 15-minute soak in a dilute solution of chlorine bleach*⇓ (1 part bleach in 10 or more parts water) is very effective at killing black mold on non-porous surfaces, but an hour-long soak in white vinegar is a less toxic alternative (NEVER use bleach and vinegar together: you could kill yourself!). In either case, follow up the soak with a thorough brushing to remove dead mold colonies and other organic growths, then rinse well and let the feeder dry before refilling to allow the odor to dissipate.

An even safer mold killer that’s much kinder to your nose than bleach or vinegar is 3% hydrogen peroxide, the medicinal kind you can buy in any drug or grocery store. The downside is that it’s much more expensive than bleach or vinegar. A frugal alternative to traditional soaking is to add a couple of ounces to the feeder bottle, screw on the base, invert the feeder and swirl gently over a sink or bucket to make sure the peroxide covers all inside surfaces, then allow it to stand for at least 10 minutes. While the peroxide is doing its work from the inside, spray the outside with more peroxide to kill any mold growing there. Follow the treatment with a good scrub, including the ports. and rinse well to remove any debris. No drying needed; the peroxide will leave no odor, and the only residues are water and oxygen.

This advice applies mainly to bottle-style feeders. Saucer feeders such as the Aspects Hummzingers can be cleaned by hand using dish detergent and the small port brush in the kit above or washed on the top rack of the dishwasher. If any stubborn debris accumulates in the built-in ant moat, the little ball-shaped brush in the Brushtech set will swish it away.

Regardless of what type of feeder you have, it will need cleaning and refilling every 1 to 3 days in hot, windy, and/or rainy weather and every 4 to 6 days in cooler, calmer, drier weather, whether the birds have emptied it or not. If you can’t make a commitment to good feeder hygiene, it’s best to plant flowers instead.


* There’s a persistent myth that using chlorine bleach to clean feeders will kill hummingbirds. It won’t as long as you rinse the feeder well, just as you would if using bleach to disinfect your own dishes or your pets’ dishes. Any minute traces of chlorine residue will be rendered harmless by reacting with the sugar in the feeder solution (the same thing happens when you mix sugar with chlorinated tap water).

Search Roundup: Feeding hummingbirds

Parasol beaded feeder

If you have an urge to get fancy with how you feed hummingbirds, do it with the feeder itself, not with the contents. (Par-A-Sol hummingbird feeders at Amazon.com)

Some recent searches on the theme of what to put in hummingbird feeders:

“can you make hummingbird food with brown sugar”

Please don’t try this. Brown sugar contains molasses, which is rich in iron, and excess iron can be deadly to hummingbirds. Use that brown sugar to make some delicious chocolate chunk blondies or pineapple upside-down cake instead.

“can you make hummingbird nectar out of organic cane sugar?”

“organic evaporated cane juice hummingbird nectar”

Again, the light beige color of semi-refined sugars, including organic sugar and “evaporated cane juice,”* indicates the presence of molasses and therefore potentially toxic iron (though at a lower concentration than in brown sugar). Until some company comes out with a fully refined white organic sugar, it’s safest to stick with non-organic white sugar. GMO sugar is a non-issue, but some people report that hummingbirds prefer pure cane sugar to either beet sugar or blends of the two (which are usually just labeled “sugar”).

“should you feed hummingbirds high fructose corn syrup”

No. HFCS is made up of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose, which are components of sucrose, the most abundant sugar in the nectars of hummingbird-pollinated flowers. Hummingbirds get all the glucose and fructose they need by digesting sucrose, and HFCS has a greater likelihood of contamination during the manufacturing process.

“how much orange extract to put in hummingbird nectar”

NONE. That product appealingly labeled “Pure Orange Extract” is 79% alcohol plus a little water and orange oil squeezed from discarded orange rinds, not the good part of the fruit. It’s not nutritious, it won’t attract the birds, and it may harm them. At best it will probably attract bees. Seriously, don’t do this.

“can i use vanilla in hummingbird feeders”

*sigh* “Pure” vanilla extract also contains alcohol—not as much its orange counterpart, but still the equivalent of 80-proof booze. Hummingbirds don’t pollinate vanilla orchids, nor do they need flavored sugar water to encourage them to visit feeders. Again, you’re more likely to increase your bee problems, which won’t be popular with your hummingbird clientele.

“is koolaid safe for humming birds”

NO. Kool-Aid contains petroleum-based synthetic dyes, artificial flavorings, preservatives, and other things that are at best useless and at worst harmful to hummingbirds. A glass of Kool-Aid every now and then won’t kill you or me, but what do you think would happen if we ate 100+ packages of the dry mix every day? That’s the equivalent of a hummingbird’s daily intake, minus the water and sugar (the only ingredients in prepared Kool-Aid that hummingbirds actually do need).

Feeder solution colored with tart cherry concentrate

This feeder’s contents are colored with organic tart cherry juice, not synthetic dyes. The birds prefer plain sugar water, and the juice makes the solution spoil faster, so I don’t encourage this.

“can u add [fruit juice] to hummingbird food”

You can, but again you’re asking for trouble, including premature spoilage and bees. If you’re thinking of substituting fruit juice for dye in plain sugar water, the least problematical kind of juice isn’t available in the average grocery store: it’s a concentrate strong enough that just a couple of teaspoons will color an 8-oz. feeder. I’ve tested several concentrates, and the one that has the best color and least objectionable flavor to hummingbirds is tart cherry. Black cherry doesn’t give as bright a color, and the birds didn’t like cranberry (it’s probably too bitter). Because adding the concentrate will provide more nutrients for yeasts to grow on, you’ll need to clean and refill the feeder more often to keep ahead of spoilage. As with the flavor(ed) additives above, you may notice more interest from bees and wasps, which love fruit juices. Plain sugar water may not be as pretty, but it’s easier on your time and bank account with fewer problems.

More than a century of backyard experience and scientific research into hummingbirds and their flowers has established beyond doubt that a fresh solution of white sugar in good-quality water served in clean feeders is all you need. No dyes. No flavors. No “supplements.”


* All cane sugar is produced by evaporating water from cane juice. This is just a snake-oil name for cane sugar that still contains a lot of its original contaminants.

Related posts:

Feeder Solution Evolution Part I: The basics

Search of the Week: “if refined sugar is so bad for us, then why do we feed it to hummingbirds??”

Search of the Week: “hummingbirds won’t eat instant nectar”

Beet juice in hummingbird feeders? NO!

Search of the Week: “is molasses ok to feed hummingbirds”

Search of the Week: “can I give hummingbirds mountain dew?”

Search of the Week: “hummingbirds won’t eat instant nectar”

Lucifer Hummingbird female

All of Arizona’s famous feeding stations use plain sugar water to attract avian celebrities such as Lucifer (above, female), Magnificent, White-eared and Violet-crowned hummingbirds. (photo © Sheri L. Williamson)

Maybe they’re trying to tell you something. Most of the “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products on the market are adulterated with petroleum-based synthetic dyes and/or preservatives, so it’s safer if the birds don’t eat them.*

Even products that claim to contain natural coloring aren’t necessarily trustworthy. On a recent visit to one of the big-box pet stores, I encountered three versions of a brand of “instant nectar” touted on the Web as containing “natural red coloring.” The ingredient list showed that the concentrate and one of the two powders contained FD&C Red No. 40, which has been found to cause harm in laboratory animals at dosages substantially lower than a hummingbird would be exposed to by drinking one of these products. The label on the other powder listed beet coloring, which may not be the best choice of natural coloring for hummingbirds for reasons I explained in an earlier post.


* The few “instant nectar” products that don’t contain unnecessary and potentially harmful additives may not hurt the birds, but they’ll put an unnecessary dent in your bank balance. They’re ≥99% sugar priced at five to ten times what you’d pay for white granulated sugar at the grocery store. What you’re really paying for is the colorful, “convenient” package, not a better product. If you’ve got cash to burn, try superfine or caster sugar, which dissolves more quickly in cold water than regular granulated. Organic sugar, “raw” sugar, and “evaporated cane juice” are other pricey alternatives that might seem worth the extra green, but their beige to brown color indicates the presence of iron, which is known to be a potentially deadly problem for hummingbirds. Until we know more about how much supplemental iron hummingbirds can tolerate, they’re not worth the risk.

Review: Feeder Fresh Nectar Defender

(Originally submitted at Duncraft, which I do not patronize because it sells various overpriced “nectar” products that contain artificial dyes, preservatives, and/or other potentially harmful additives that don’t belong in hummingbird feeders.)

A bad idea

1out of 5

The active ingredient in this product is reportedly copper, which is an essential micro-nutrient at natural (low) intake levels and a potentially toxic heavy metal at higher doses. The fact that copper accumulates in birds’ bodies combined with hummingbirds’ extreme appetites increases the risk that the copper in this product will accumulate over time to levels that may cause scientifically documented problems such as behavioral changes, developmental abnormalities, reduced egg production and nestling survival, etc. That’s a pretty high price to pay for reducing feeder maintenance.

Search of the week: “how do i know if the hummingbirds are to fat”

When they can’t get off the ground.

Image

To survive their epic migrations, Rufous Hummingbirds may double their body weight by converting energy-rich sugar into energy-rich fat.

Seriously, a wild, free-living hummingbird can’t get too fat. Fat is fuel for migration, and they pack on the grams as necessary to prepare for travel and shed them just as quickly when the journey is over.