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.

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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 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 artificial 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.

Search of the Week: “can hummingbirds drink water heated by the sun”

Rufous/Allen's hummingbird at feeder

A young Rufous/Allen’s hummingbird drinking on a hot summer afternoon.

Of course they can, as long as it’s not straight out of a solar water heater.

But don’t take my word for it when you can easily prove it to yourself. Leave your hummingbird feeder in full sun for a few hours on a hot summer day, then check the temperature of the sugar water.

Unless you’ve hung your feeder near a highly reflective surface and/or inside an enclosed greenhouse-like space, the liquid won’t be much warmer than the surrounding air. This is because a relatively small small volume of liquid in an uninsulated container loses heat to the surrounding air about as fast as it gains it.

Hummingbirds are not delicate, fragile creatures. If the feeder solution isn’t hot enough to damage human skin, it’s not going to burn their tongues.

Addendum, June 23, 2014: A complete answer to this question involves numbers, and I finally got around to getting some on a hot afternoon here in the high desert of southern Arizona:

  • Air temperature in full sun: 95° F. (35° C.)*
  • Feeder solution temperature in full sun: 105° F. (40.6° C.)*

For comparison:

  • Hummingbird body temperature: ~104° F. (~40° C.)
  • Highest air temperature ever recorded in the U.S.: 134° F (56.7° C).
  • Optimum hot beverage temperature: 136° F (57.8° C).
  • Water hot enough to cause third-degree burns to human skin in 5 seconds: 140° F. (60° C.)
  • McDonald’s coffee, pre-lawsuit: 180–190° F. (82–88° C.)

* Air and sugar water temperature measured with a cooking thermometer in my yard at around 2 p.m.; the feeder is a fancy HummZinger with a translucent top, which probably adds a little greenhouse effect to the direct solar heating.

References:

LiveScience: What’s the highest temperature ever recorded in the U.S.?

Brown F., and K.R. Diller. 2008. Calculating the optimum temperature for serving hot beverages. Burns Aug;34(5):648-54. Link (PubMed)

Wikipedia: Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants

The Burn Foundation: Safety Facts on Scald Burns

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

Image

Feeding stations in southeastern Arizona attract rare beauties such as Lucifer Hummingbirds with plain old sugar water.

NO. Molasses (and brown sugar, which contains molasses) is absolutely not safe to feed hummingbirds. It’s high in iron, for which nectar- and fruit-eating birds have a very low tolerance. When hummingbirds consume more iron than their natural diet provides, the excess builds up in their organs and kills them slowly and painfully.

As I’ve covered here before, there are only two things that are absolutely safe to put in your hummingbird feeders: white sugar and water. Just add 1 part white granulated sugar to 4 parts good quality water. Stir until dissolved (no boiling necessary). Adding to or substituting for this recipe could put their health at risk, and what intelligent, caring person would want to do that to a hummingbird?

But since there have been so many searches like this lately, let me repeat and expand the list of things that don’t belong in hummingbird feeders:

No-sign-20px Honey
No-sign-20px Molasses
No-sign-20px Any non-white sugar, including brown, organic, “raw,” turbinado, “natural,” Zulka Morena, colored baking sugars, and evaporated cane juice
No-sign-20px Powdered sugar (which contains anti-caking ingredients)
No-sign-20px Pancake syrup, maple syrup, or agave syrup (misleadingly marketed as “nectar”)
No-sign-20px High-fructose corn syrup (e.g., Karo Syrup)
No-sign-20px Artificial sweeteners (Sweet ‘n’ Low, Equal, Splenda, or their generics)
No-sign-20px Natural nonnutritive sweeteners (stevia derivatives such as Truvia, Stevia In The Raw, various others)
No-sign-20px Anything containing artificial or nonnutritive sweeteners
No-sign-20px Artificial food coloring, including but not limited to Red #40 and Red #3
No-sign-20px Anything containing artificial coloring (including most “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products)
No-sign-20px Anything containing sodium benzoate or other preservatives (including most “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products)
No-sign-20px Protein or vitamin supplements (protein powder, pet bird vitamins, dried insects, etc.)
No-sign-20px Jell-O or similar products
No-sign-20px Kool-Aid, Crystal Light, or equivalents
No-sign-20px Gatorade or other sports drinks
No-sign-20px Alcoholic beverages of any kind
No-sign-20px Carbonated beverages of any kind
No-sign-20px Caffeinated beverages of any kind
No-sign-20px Fruit juices (except a small amount of concentrate added to sugar water for color, if you must)
No-sign-20px Beet juice or other vegetable juices
No-sign-20px Lemonade, limeade, or other fruit-based beverages
No-sign-20px Coffee, regular or decaf
No-sign-20px Teas, whether black, green, or herbal, regular or decaffeinated
No-sign-20px Dairy products or substitutes
No-sign-20px Vegetable oils
No-sign-20px Soup, broth, or consommé
No-sign-20px Vanilla extract or other natural or artificial flavorings or extracts
No-sign-20px Essential oils or herbal extracts
No-sign-20px Perfumes or other fragrances, whether natural or artificial, designer or fake
No-sign-20px Colloidal metals, including silver, gold, platinum, uranium, plutonium, and unobtanium
No-sign-20px Anything other than pure white granulated sugar and good-quality water. 

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When the going gets chilly, the chill get crafty

hand-crocheted humingbird feeder cozy

My hand-crocheted hummingbird feeder cozy

After posting a bunch of second-hand/theoretical advice for keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing, I found myself and my clientele (several Anna’s and a Violet-crowned or two) facing a forecast low of 13º F. (-10º C.). My northern friends will smirk (and rightly so), but this is southern Arizona for peeps‘ sake.

Since temperatures this low are such a rare event here, insulating the feeder seemed like the most sensible (and cheapest) approach. Besides, my crochet hooks had been collecting dust since last fall, and this was a good excuse to get back to hooking. So to speak.

After a quick stop to shop for appropriately colored yarn and about two hours of hooking, unraveling, and rehooking, I had a crocheted feeder cozy for an 8-oz. Nature’s Best (my all-time favorite bottle feeder that’s no longer available, sadly).

Before calling it a night, I filled a clean feeder with hot 3:1 solution, slipped on the cozy, and stumbled across the starlit yard to hang it in one of the more popular spots. Another Nature’s Best that had been out all day had frozen beyond the Squishee stage already, with a band of syrup trapped between solid layers of ice.

When I finally got around to checking the feeder this morning (about an hour and a half after sunrise), there was no ice in the bottle at all, but swirls of denser syrup indicated that at least some of the solution had frozen. Interestingly, the HummZinger Mini hanging in front of the poorly insulated living room window showed no signs of having frozen, despite containing a smaller volume of solution with larger surface area and getting very little morning sun to warm it up (it’s on the north side of the house).

I was a little worried about how the hummingbirds would respond to the weird appearance of their feeder. The female Violet-crowned Hummingbird didn’t seem the least bit put off by the bright red “sweater,” but then she didn’t have to wear it.

Related posts:

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing

Helping hummingbirds through winter weather

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing

Two winters ago I posted some suggestions for helping hummingbirds through winter weather, including boosting the sugar content of the feeder solution, taking advantage of heat radiating from windows, creating shelters, and using heat lamps. A lot of people are dealing with frozen feeders already this season, so here are a few more suggestions gleaned from the winter hummingbird community:

  • Make a “feeder cozy” to help fresh solution retain its warmth longer. It can be as fancy as you like—knitted, crocheted, quilted, down-filled—but pipe insulation (fiberglass wrap or foam tube) or a section cut from a discarded blanket or sweater will do the job. If it’s roomy enough, you may even be able to tuck handwarmer packs inside. [A commenter on BirdForum mentioned using stockings; if your feeder bottle is small enough, a heavy wool sock would make a quick and easy cozy.]
  • Wrap your feeder in outdoor-rated incandescent Christmas lights (the old style, not energy-efficient LEDs). The bulbs should produce enough heat to keep the sugar water slightly above air temperature, especially if you add an outer layer of aluminum foil to reflect heat and block wind.
  • Wrap your feeder in pipe heating tape under a layer of insulation. Thermostatically controlled models will save energy by turning on as necessary to keep the solution just above freezing.
  • Invert your sugars. The freezing point of a solution depends on the number of molecules present. More solute (sugar) molecules make it harder for the solvent (water) molecules to link up. Inverting your sugar, which breaks each sucrose molecule into one of fructose and one of glucose, doubles the number of molecules and depresses the freezing point by a few additional degrees without adding additional sugar.

To invert ordinary table sugar, combine 2 cups sugar with 1 cup water, adding 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice or 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar to speed up the reaction. Heat the solution to a low boil on the stovetop in a heavy saucepan, washing down the sides of the pan with a little additional water to dissolve any stray sugar crystals. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature, which will rise above the boiling point of water as the water in it boils away. Once it reaches 230° F., remove the pan from the heat and allow the syrup to cool, then pour it into a clean jar, pop on the lid, and store in the refrigerator. Substitute invert syrup for no more than half of the sugar in your feeder solution and reduce the water slightly (by about 2 tablespoons per cup) to compensate for the water in the syrup.

Safety first! Lights and heating tape present fire and electrocution hazards. Use only products that are rated for outdoor use, including extension cords. Do not use electric heating pads outdoors! Don’t enclose Christmas lights inside a cozy or place a cozy-covered feeder too close to a heat lamp—it could start a fire. Heat lamps or Christmas lights may melt the flimsy plastic of discount-store feeders.

Useful links:

Feeding hummingbirds in winter in Indiana

Hummingbird feeder heater using Christmas lights

More on making and using invert sugar from Not So Humble Pie

Related posts:

Helping hummingbirds through winter weather

When the going gets chilly, the chilly get crafty