Feeding and Protecting Hummingbirds

Hurray For Spring! What signals spring for you? Tulips? The last stubborn bit of that pile of driveway snow disappearing?  A visit to the garden centre?


Young male in a native redbud tree about 100ft from Altona Forest

My spring truly arrives when the ruby-throated hummingbirds return to my garden. They are my ‘boys (and girls) of summer’ and harbingers of all the glorious warm days ahead. I am always ready for them and prepared to offer them safe, healthy, dependable food sources to protect them and their new generation born in our woods.

When I lived on the land bridge between Lakes Ontario and Erie, I’d consistently see my first hummer in mid-April. Here in Pickering it’s 3 weeks later. Why? I think it’s because the land bridge acts as a migration path for those headed to the far north (it’s much safer to fly following land rather than risk flying non-stop across the deadly expanse of a Great Lake). And Altona’s location is less migration and more ‘destination’ to nest for the summer.

If you provide hummingbirds with nectar other than pollinator-friendly flowers, be aware that they are easy to draw – but just as easy to kill. Mold in feeders, bacteria-filled ‘sour’ nectar, and chemicals are all potentially lethal for them in the huge quantities they consume.

Here are 10 safety-conscious tips to welcome hummingbirds to your garden:

  1. The best, easiest, low-maintenance way to draw hummingbirds is to plant nectar-producing plants, shrubs and trees they love. Try natives like redbud (tree), cardinal flower, bee balm, blazing star, beard-tongue (much prettier than it sounds), trumpet vine, or some non-natives like weigela, honeysuckle, morning glory, rose of sharon (shrub/tree), fuschia, zinnias etc…
  2. Choosing the right feeder is very important. Choose one with wasp-blocking ports, ant-blocking/ ant moat design, bee-guards, ones that have little/no yellow (which is a colour that draws some wasp species who actually chase hummers away) and has lots of red on it. The sweet nectar you are offering will draw all sorts of pollinators – and it can be a challenge to feed just the hummingbirds.
  3. Red draws hummingbirds. You don’t need red food colouring in nectar – these concentrated chemical dyes can harm the birds and their young. Companies add it to lure hummingbirds to their product – so you’ll buy it. Instead, if you want to increase your gardens’ visibility to hummingbirds, use a red feeder or tie red or orange ribbons to your feeder pole.
  4. Choose a feeder that is easy to clean (you will be cleaning and refilling it regularly!). More important than providing food is making sure that the feeder is squeaky clean (and cleaned 1-2x a week each week) throughout the feeding season. Choosing a well designed feeder for cleaning will not only help you protect the birds, but save you hours in trying to get into tiny areas where dangerous mold could grow.
  5. Clean and prepare your feeders about two weeks before you expect your first hummingbird. This not only establishes you as the ‘place to be’ for arriving hummingbirds, but provides food for the earliest travelers who might be desperately hungry after their migration into cold and food-scarce areas. You might save the life of an early arriver. In Altona Forest, the first hummingbird consistently arrives in the second week of May.
  6. Change your nectar every 4-5 days in cool weather (whether or not you see hummingbirds)
  7. Change your nectar every 2-3 days in warm weather – harmful bacteria grows quickly in sugar-water. Clean your feeder with a tiny amount of the mildest dish soap, vinegar or simply hot water. Rinse well … and then again… to keep all chemicals out of their food. Use brushes (I buy a fresh child’s toothbrush each season for sole use of cleaning the hummingbird feeder ports and insides) to clean into the hard-to-reach spots where potentially lethal mold and mildew accumulate. Hummingbirds are very susceptible to harsh cleaners so I use soap that is 98% plant sourced and still rinse thoroughly.
  8. Begin with one feeder, but if you see an aggressive bird monopolizing that feeder, hang a second. Learn from my mistake: your second feeder should be around the corner or visually hidden from the first or the aggressive bird might ‘claim’ both. This territorial behaviour is natural: they arrive to mate, nest, and find a feeding territory to support their young. Territorial flight displays are spectacular so just enjoy!
  9. Judge your feeder’s capacity needs based on how many birds you draw. I find that a small tube feeder is enough for my multiple families because I clean and add new nectar every 2-3 days.  Don’t overfill – it wastes nectar. In time you’ll learn how much your visitors need for 2-3 days. (The photo below is my version of a ‘full feeder’)
  10. At season’s end, you will see your ‘regulars’ disappear (mid-to-late September in Altona Forest) as they begin their long migration back to Central America. Continue providing nectar and keep your feeders fresh for 2-3 weeks to support young inexperienced birds, stragglers, and commuters heading south from as far north as Thunder Bay. Those who find you on their migration route will likely visit you again and again over subsequent years.

A female sipping in my garden

Hummingbirds are vastly different from us in how their internal organs work and how their livers and kidneys can process chemicals – we don’t yet fully understand how ‘fake foods’ affect them, their eggs, and chicks. We have to be aware and bear the responsibility that we are their nursery each summer… they travel thousands of kilometers to nest in our woods.

Providing hummingbirds with food is easy; doing it with their safety and longevity in mind is harder. Are you up for the challenge?


A male with the ‘flash’ on his throat feathers              image ~ pixabay


Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Ruby Throated Hummingbird Migration to Our Neighbourhood

Ontario Ruby-Hummingbird Migration Tracker

Historical Ontario Migration Sightings Map – same site – choose a year and zoom in to see our area

Migration Tracker (Through the US)

Hummingbird Range Map

Feeding And Protecting Hummingbirds ~ © 2016 Natasha G




This entry was posted in Creatures of Altona, DIY Projects, Gardening for Biodiversity and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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