Hummingbirds in our yards all winter is relatively new in this area.
There has always been the isolated or hotline sighting that got the birding community excited. Many of us are now feeding the Anna’s hummingbirds as regularly as we feed the other birds. Even so, we’re still a little uneasy when we see hummingbirds in December and January. We worry about keeping their feeders full and feel a sense of responsibility that is a little uncomfortable. It’s important to remember that these birds wouldn’t stay all winter if they didn’t know what they were doing.
The sugar-water syrup we put out isn’t the mainstay of their diet. It is an energy booster and that is welcome, especially when it is bitter cold. In the morning it’s like that first cup of coffee that gets you going for the day. The last drink just before dark keeps them warm throughout the night. Have you noticed they usually don’t sit by the feeder all day? They are finding and consuming other food.
Tiny insects, some of which can be almost microscopic, make up about 75 percent of their diet. Protein is the most important part of a hummingbird’s diet. If we are covered in snow and the temperatures are below freezing, these birds can also go into a state of semi-hibernation known as a torpor.
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Just recently, a reader observed something very interesting about a hummingbird’s diet at this time of the year. Several years ago, I read an article about the holes that red-breasted sapsuckers drill in trees and how these little rows of holes are actually “wells.” Sap fills the newly drilled holes and not only do the sapsuckers drink from them but so do other insects and other birds, including the hummingbirds.
This reader had the rare experience of seeing a hummingbird feeding at the sapsucker wells in his yard’s cedar trees. He is originally from a part of the country where they drill, or tap the trees for maple syrup. They do this in the winter after a sudden cold snap starts the sap to running. Not only do we have winter-blooming plants, tiny insects and faithful feeder-tenders to supply the needs of our hummingbirds, we have sapsucker wells.
While we are on the subject of feeding hummingbirds, another reader brought up a subject that has plagued birdwatchers for years. It’s been decades since the word went out that red food coloring is not only unhealthy for hummingbirds, but it isn’t necessary. Why use it? The manufacturers of hummingbird feeders have done an excellent job of using the color red in feeder design. The only reason the dye was originally used was as an attractant. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red more than any other. You can put out a feeder with no red on it or in it and you will have hummingbirds using your feeders.
There is a commercial product that makes a hummingbird nectar and they use red in it. Some of these concentrates are shown as lasting two years. What else is in them? Hummingbirds love the sugar-water mixture we put in our feeders without any food coloring. I use a three parts water to one part sugar and get it hot enough to melt the sugar. It isn’t necessary to boil it.
The concerned reader who contacted me had done her own research on this subject and was eager to share it and get the word out to others who feed these special birds. To find more information on red coloring in hummingbird syrup, check out www.hummingbirds.net/dye.html.
In a few short weeks, the activity at the hummingbird feeders will explode. It’s almost time for the rufous hummers to return. Spring won’t be far behind.
Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. (Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)