Backyard Naturalist: You Can Have Hummingbirds at Your Feeder All Winter Long

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Dec. 5, 2003.

I had a nice chat this week with Jim Petra of Chehalis, one of the truly long-time backyard birders in our area. Jim has been putting up feeders and nest boxes for many years, and always has great success attracting a variety of wildlife to his place. He keeps an eye on things, so he can report when anything unusual occurs.

Not long ago Petra looked out his window to see a deer munching on sunflower seeds from a low-hanging feeder. A lot of folks see that happen, but it’s rare at his place because he’s in a fairly populated residential part of the city. Last week he was astonished — and delighted — to look out and see a great blue heron on his deck.

The bird obviously wasn’t there for something to eat, since Petra doesn’t put out fish, and herons eat little else. He speculated that the bird saw the hubbub around his feeder and felt it must be a safe place to rest if so many other birds were about the place. It was a first in his birding history.

The great blue is one of our largest birds, standing about 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 6 feet or more. It is a slow, deliberate bird that always seems graceful in even the worst of situations. They are pretty common and easy to observe along local streams and lakes. Having one in the yard is a definite thrill for any backyard birder.

The most interesting aspect of Petra’s account this week, however, centered around hummingbirds. After reading one of our columns about Anna’s hummers being year-round residents, he decided to start putting out a nectar feeder, which had previously been a summer-only activity. Before long, a pair of Anna’s arrived and found his yard perfect for winter headquarters. Since their arrival, they have been regular daily visitors, and have kept Jim busy mixing sugar solutions and keeping his offering fresh and clean.

The local population of Anna’s hummingbirds hasn’t been particularly great from a historical perspective, but they are around and their numbers probably haven’t declined much over the years.

It takes a good deal of patience to get a few to discover a backyard feeder, but if they accept it and establish themselves at that location, they will be dependably present through the long winter.

They add a welcome dimension of color and activity to the feeder site.

The solution of four parts water to one part sugar should be changed frequently to assure a clean, safe source of nectar. It should be mixed with cane sugar rather than the kind simply marked “granulated” at the grocery store. Cane sugar contains fructose, the same sugar that is naturally found in flowers and blossoms in the summer, and the package will be marked “pure cane sugar.”

The other packages are usually beet sugar, which get their sweetening from dextrose, glucose and sucrose. They are sweet, but not nearly as attractive to hummers.

To properly mix your solution, bring the water to a rolling boil and set it off the heat for a few moments until all bubbling has ended. Then stir in the sugar until it has completely dissolved.

Don’t add food coloring or anything else to the solution, especially honey, brown sugar or something else that seems “natural and healthy” from our viewpoint. Cane sugar and water — that’s it.

After the solution has cooled, you may store it in a closed container in the refrigerator for as long as two weeks, replenishing the feeder as needed.

The feeder should be washed in hot, soapy water and rinsed with very hot water before each refilling to prevent the growth of any fungus in the feeder tubes. Some fungi can grow and multiply at any temperature above freezing, so cleanliness is essential to protect the hummers.

Try putting out your summer hummingbird feeder and be patient. You are apt to be rewarded with the presence of a tiny jewel of birdlife all winter long!

Russ Mohney, a fourth-generation Lewis County outdoorsman, expanded the best of his decade’s worth of “Backyard Naturalist” columns into a book. Copies of “A Simple Song: Recollections from a Backwoods County” are available for $12.99 at Book ‘n’ Brush, the Lewis County Historical Museum and at The Chronicle.