For the Birds: Hummingbird feeders feed other things as well

Photo by Brian Thoele – Brian Thoele of Norwalk, Conn., got this shot of a downy woodpecker on a hummingbird feeder.

Hummingbird feeders, as the name suggests, are meant to attract hummingbirds.

It’s right in the name “hummingbird feeder.”

But, as we all know, it attracts a lot more than hummingbirds. The most common invaders include yellowjackets, hornets, bees, and ants. However, hummingbird feeders also attract larger critters such as bats, squirrels, raccoons, and even bears.

The list doesn’t stop there as a few emails I received this week point out. Other birds enjoy a visit to a hummingbird feeder as well.

Downy woodpeckers are probably the most common other birds that visit hummingbird feeders. Michele from the Monadnock Region wrote in to share that two woodpeckers had dislodged five of the six yellow plastic inserts that go into the feeding ports. The plastic inserts are supposed to keep birds like woodpeckers away, but these woodpeckers found a way around it. Michele did her best to find the inserts and put them back, but the woodpeckers just popped them out again.

At about the same time, Brian from Connecticut sent in a photo of a downy woodpecker drinking from a hummingbird feeder. Is that normal, he wondered?

Usually, what hummingbird feeders attract are hummingbirds and the aforementioned insects. But occasionally, those aforementioned mammals will show up as well, although often at night under the cover of darkness. In addition to downy woodpeckers, other New England birds that may visit hummingbird feeders include orioles, thrushes, chickadees and other woodpeckers.

Orioles have their own feeders that are often sold at bird-feeding or hardware stores. They are usually orange instead of red and the mixture for orioles is a bit different. While a hummingbird mix is four parts water to one part sugar, oriole are six parts water to one part sugar. In the absence of an oriole feeder (and there are way fewer oriole feeders than hummingbird feeders) an oriole will visit a hummingbird feeder and tolerate the sweeter mixture. In fact, many web sites now recommend the same 4-to1 ratio for orioles and hummingbirds.

So why would these other birds visit hummingbird feeders? Orioles are easy to explain. Nectar is part of their diet. One of the best bird photos I’ve taken is of a male Baltimore oriole sticking its bill into a crab apple tree in bloom in early May.

The other birds, such as woodpeckers, are fairly simple to explain as well. These birds have a varied diet that includes fruits, which are high in sugar. Nectar is a fine replacement or supplement to the sugar they get from fruit. So, if a woodpecker (or thrush or chickadee or other bird) find a source of sugar, why wouldn’t they try to exploit it?

There is another reason as well that may seem far-fetched at first, but I’ve seen it first-hand to verify it. Remember I mentioned that insects like to visit hummingbird feeders? Well, many birds like insects so if a group of insects is concentrated around a hummingbird feeder, they are easy pickings for birds.

My hummingbird feeder has a depression in the middle that collects rainwater and often traps ants and other crawling bugs. Chickadees land on my hummingbird feeder often, but they are usually looking for treats in that depression, not for sugar water. It took me a few times of observing it to figure out what was going on.

While hummingbirds are the main attraction at hummingbird feeders, there are plenty of other acts as well.

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