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Understanding Hummingbirds Needs

Providing for hummingbirds’ basic needs requires very little extra effort or expense, and the results will be very rewarding. By providing usable habitat, food and water, almost anyone can soon be attracting several species of these remarkably unique birds. If you wish to have more hummingbirds, rather than less, visiting your yard there are several things you can do to attract them in larger numbers.

Many folks simply plant some of the flowers that hummingbirds frequent for the life sustaining nectar they offer. While this works in attracting hummers, it has some essential drawbacks. Due to the hummingbird’s fierce territoriality, it is better to have several plots of flowers rather than just one. The same is true of hummingbird feeders. Dominant males will aggressively patrol their staked out territories and drive off all potential competitors. Having multiple flower plots, spaced far apart, will discourage alpha hummers from wasting too much energy chasing others away from “his” plot.

The strategic location of hummingbird feeders accomplishes the same result. Hummingbirds must visit literally thousands of nectar producing plants each day in order to fulfill their daily energy requirements. A single feeder suffices to fill those same needs. Nectar producing flowers do not continually produce nectar year round - a well-tended feeder does. By better understanding hummingbird behavior, we can locate our feeders in places that are more desirable, and thereby more visited by larger numbers of hummers.

Hummingbirds are ever vigilant, constantly watching for predators, rivals, and “trespassers” into their territories. While feeding, they need to see in all directions and be able to vacate the feeding location in a split second, if necessary. They need to be able to fly in any direction - up, down, sideways, or backward to avoid confrontations from aggressive invaders or predators. Flowers allow for this, as will a well-placed hummingbird feeder.

Placing the hummingbird feeder in vegetation produces a natural-like setting for hummers to use. They can escape in any direction if they need to. The vegetation provides cover - a sense of security or protection. Hummers spend quite a lot of time perched. While perched, they may be simply digesting food, poised ready to “hawk” small insects that come too close, preening feathers to keep them in top condition for flight, or simply resting. The branches of the vegetation offer these perching opportunities. Moreover, the nearby branch becomes a station from which the hummer can guard his food source.

Placing the feeder under the eave of the house or porch, or suction-cupped to a window, will draw them in but they tend to “dine and dash” when their foraging needs are not fully met. Therefore, having several feeders, widely placed around your property, will greatly enhance your ability to attract greater numbers of hummers.

And, having plenty of natural perching places near each feeder will likely increase the chances of the  birds staying longer. Females and juveniles will more easily share the feeder, so having a feeder for each male will insure higher numbers of birds. Generally, the more feeders you strategically locate (that is keeping the feeders out of sight from each other), the more hummers you will have. In Southern Arizona, that means several species throughout the year.

Staggering the height above ground level so no two feeders are exactly the same height will also help to attract more numbers of hummers and sometimes more species as well. Reports of rare and less common species usually come from yards that have more rather than less numbers of feeders. Calliope hummers, for example, prefer to feed just above ground level, from one to four feet high. Magnificent and Rufus hummers prefer to feed from the highest feeders. I always keep one feeder about 15 feet above ground for this reason. So, staggered heights of feeders, overall number of feeders, and strategic location of the feeders all contribute to the larger number of hummers you can attract.

Hummingbird brains are imprinted with the locations of every feeder they use. For this reason, the same birds return each year to the same feeder locations. In our region, we have several species that winter-over or have become resident. We also experience the phenomenon of migration several times a year. For this reason, it is wise to place some feeders on the south side of your house or property to attract north-migrating hummers in the spring and on the north side in the fall to attract southbound migrators in the fall.

Wind is a consideration in feeder placement. A sheltered location is desirable, as long as the location does not restrict the birds’ “airspace” and visibility preferences.

Several small feeders are preferable to one larger capacity feeder. Feeders with perches help the birds conserve energy while feeding. Placing the feeders where they can be in shade, at least during the hottest parts of the day, will also be preferable from the hummer’s point of view. In addition, and perhaps most important of all, keeping the nectar fresh and the feeder clean will insure happy and healthy hummers. In our climate, it is best to use a five to one ratio recipe when making nectar. This insures they get the right amount of water in their diet in our dry region and a five to one recipe most closely approximates the sweetness level of natural nectar from flowers. Boiling the water used kills any potentially harmful bacteria. Mix five parts of pre-heated water into one part nectar. Keep in mind that nectar has virtually no nutritional value, it is simply quick energy that they need during active daylight hours. The nutritional value of their diet comes from the insects they consume. Insects are laden with animal proteins and amino acids, moisture and fiber, vitamins and minerals. Hanging a fruit feeder near a nectar feeder will insure a steady supply of fruit flies and other small insects for the hummers to enjoy.

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