For the Birds: Hummingbird feeders are for hummingbirds

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers. Yes, back-to-back hummingbird columns.

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbirds hovers near a feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in April 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbirds hovers near a feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in April 2017.

The hummingbird questions kept coming, so why not devote one more column in 2018 to these little charmers?

This time the question came from Pamela, whose hummingbird feeders in East Alstead are “covered with yellow jackets,” and preventing the intended targets from visiting.

“The poor hummers can’t get near it! The yellow jackets drank the whole thing in one day,” she wrote.

I think we can all relate to this quandary. Whether it’s ants, yellow jackets, or as was my case earlier this summer, raccoons, keeping hummingbird feeders open and available for hummingbirds can be a challenge.

When the raccoons ravaged my hummingbird feeders nightly this summer, I got fed up and simply moved the feeder a few feet way to the clothesline. No more raccoon problem. The hummingbirds found it just fine and actually appreciate the extra-long perch.

So how does that relate to yellow jackets, which certainly aren’t going to be daunted by flying a few feet to the left or right? Well, according to some experts in the field, that just might be enough to discourage yellow jackets.

The educational and fun website Journey North states that insects are “only likely to visit convenient sources and probably won’t search for relocated feeders.”

So, if you’re hummingbird feeder is inundated by yellow jackets, ants or some other insects, try moving it somewhere close so the birds can find it, but still in a place where you can see and enjoy it.

If that doesn’t work and the insects still take over, Journey North offers more tips on discouraging yellow jackets from visiting hummingbird feeders.

First, the site cautions against using cooking oil, petroleum jelly or any other oily substance that can get onto the birds’ feathers.

Clean the feeders regularly. If the sugar water spills or leaks, clean it up and rinse with water. It doesn’t take a genius to know sugar water is going to attract bugs (my words, not Journey North’s).

Use feeders designed to keep insects away.

“Feeders with saucers position the nectar away from the feeding port where long-tongued hummers can reach nectar, but insects cannot,” the site reads. Or, you can try installing insect traps that are sold in bird and hardware stores.

Insect guards placed in the holes of feeders can also be useful, but don’t use yellow ones as bees are attracted to yellow. Yellow guards already attached to the feeder may be painted red with non-toxic paint.

Speaking of red, remember the “nectar” in the feeder does not need to be red, and, in fact, dyes should be avoided. One part sugar to four parts water is all that’s needed.

Because I borrowed so much from Journey North, I’ll add a bit more information about the site and encourage you to check it out. Journey North for more than 25 years has been a citizen science project in North America for children and the public at large. Sightings of creatures, such as hummingbirds and butterflies, are recorded and mapped in real-time to track migration patterns.

One more tip about feeding hummingbirds this time of year. Last week we established that it is OK to keep feeding hummingbirds into the fall and it will not impact their instinct to head south. So, if you are going to keep feeding hummers for as long as possible, make sure the feeder is filled.

At this time of year, with migration on their minds, they are filling up as much as possible. One day, or even a few hours, with an empty feeder could cause the birds to seek food elsewhere and they may not come back until next year.

Good luck and let me know what you’re seeing out there.

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