“…It’s fun to feed hummingbirds and see them up close — almost like encountering fairies. But should we be getting so personal? And if so, how is it possible for a giant human to attract a buzzing bee-bird weighing about as much as a nickel?”
By JoAnna Klein Sept. 8, 2018
We asked Sheri Williamson, a naturalist, ornithologist and author of A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America abut people hand feeding birds.
“Should people feed hummingbirds like this?”
“It’s sort of a meditative exercise we could all use to slow down a bit,” said Ms. Williamson. “Sitting still you start to notice things in your garden you may not have noticed before. It makes for a nice excuse to get out and just commune with nature.”
To discourage the birds from thinking of any human as a possible food source, she said, try blending in with the environment as much as possible. That’s important because not every human has good intentions, she notes.
Getting hummingbirds too accustomed to people can make them vulnerable to those who may swat at them out of fear or attract them for reasons other than just observation. “There are reports of people attracting hummingbirds and doing terrible things to them,” she said, like selling them as love charms.
Does a hummingbird know you’re the one feeding it?
Hummingbirds have excellent memories.
Rufous hummingbirds can recall when they visited flowers at specific locations in their territories and keep track of whether they’re full of nectar or depleted. Black-chinned hummingbirds can learn about colors. And migrating hummingbirds travel long distances, returning yearly to the same locations.
These intelligent birds have huge brains relative to their bodies, and they show awareness of their surroundings. But nobody, to Ms. Williamson’s knowledge, has formally tested whether hummingbirds recognize humans as food sources.
Anecdotal accounts suggest, however, that hummingbirds may look for humans when they find their feeders empty.
“They’ll fly to the feeder, look at me, and fly back to the feeder, almost like a pet waiting at an empty food dish,” she said.
What’s the best way to attract hummingbirds?
Pick a spot and stay very still.
Take a chair to the same place on the patio, porch or lawn and remain motionless so the birds can investigate the new food source without fear. “They’re quite suspicious little creatures, and they’re also not too quick to accept new stimuli.”
Because hummingbirds are quite color-sensitive, you may try wearing lots of colors.
“A really gaudy Hawaiian print shirt is an excellent hummingbird attractor,” said Ms. Williamson. She also called Mr. Pratt’s flowered hat, “a great idea.”
Your piece of flair doesn’t have to look like a flower: “A red bandanna, headband, gaudy beaded earrings — you can wax your mustache red,” she said. Or you may also try adorning yourself with flowers from your garden — especially the kinds hummingbirds pollinate.
Does feeding nectar to hummingbirds undermine their foraging?
No, but it may distract them from flowers.
In the tropics, Ms. Williamson said, nonmigratory hummingbirds seem to be doing a poorer job at pollination of some flowers near year-round feeding stations.
“This doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem here in the temperate zone — as long as we practice good feeding habits,” she said.
Regularly clean feeders — the ones you wear or the ones hanging in your garden — every few days or more often in hot weather with hydrogen peroxide to keep the nectar from fermenting and to fend off microbes that may make hummingbirds sick.
Also, use low-sugar nectar that won’t distract them too much from natural nectar sources they need to pollinate. The rule of thumb for all the species of hummingbirds in North America is four parts water to one part cane sugar.
Where and when will you have the most luck?
Your best chance to hand-feed hummingbirds is when they’re under stress, which includes this time of year, when some birds are preparing to migrate and unsure of where they’ll find their next batch of flowers or feeders. Don’t worry — it’s unlikely that they’d resist their internal clocks to stick around for your feeder, Ms. Williamson said, (though some nonmigratory species have expanded their ranges because of friendly human feeders).
Birds have already started to fly from the north. But in the south, this time of year until early October is near perfect for creating a safe place for young, naïve birds, which may be more exploratory, to sample your offerings.
“They will remember your yard on their next journey, and you’ll end up with a loyal and growing clientele if you do everything right,” she said.
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