Hummingbirds: Love Them, Just Don’t Love Them to Death

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle
Hummingbirds are an easy bird to attract to a backyard garden, a cinch to keep well fed, and a joy to watch. But if you don’t take care, they’re also an easy bird to love to death.

If you do not work diligently to keep your hummingbird feeders clean and free from mold and fungus, the tiny hum-buzzers you so enjoy could develop a serious and deadly fungus infection. This infection causes the tongue to swell, making it impossible for the bird to feed.
Starvation is a slow and painful death. I hope that the thought of a single hummingbird’s death will be enough to motivate you to run out and grab your feeder off the hook — right now — and give your feeder a good scrubbing.

But, just in case you need more motivation, think of the children. A mother hummingbird can pass the infection on to her babies, who will also die of starvation.

Local Heartbreaking Loss

Vickie Miller, of Chehalis, recently experienced the heartbreaking loss of an Anna’s Hummingbird she called “The General.”

“The General patrolled our backyard every day for over a year and a half. One day he came home with a swollen tongue and we knew he had a fungal infection,” Miller said. “We watched our beautiful General die within 24 hours.”

“I held him in my hand, inside a warm cloth, to help ease his passing,” Miller said. “Please, warn others to clean ALL their bird feeders clean.”
The proper care of hummingbird feeders requires a significant commitment of time and energy. Vickie Miller has Anna’s Hummingbirds in her backyard all year round.

“In the winter I bring the feeders in at night to keep them from freezing,” Miller said. “And I’m very diligent about keeping the feeders clean and scrubbed between fillings. It is especially important to change the nectar frequently in warm weather, because the nectar will spoil.”

If you see a neighbor with a dirty feeder, Miller said, “Please, tell them about The General and his fatal fungal infection.”

A good rule of thumb is to keep your hummingbird feeder so clean, that you would drink from it yourself.

How-To’s of Hummingbirds

There are several easy-to-clean feeders available at local feed stores.

The Dr. JB’s brand is one I have seen recently and it has a wide-mouthed glass jar that is not only easy to fill, but easy to scrub clean. The base of the feeder of that brand comes apart so you can reach into every nook and cranny to scrub away the mold and fungus.

The Aspects HummZinger brand is also carried locally. They have a window mounted feeder that has a hinged lid that lifts up and makes it ultra easy to clean and fill.

To clean your feeder, flush the feeder with hot tap water and use a bottle brush to scrub the sides of the glass jar. Do NOT use soap; soap will leave a residue behind. If you do use soap, a bleach and water solution rinse will remove the residue.

Inspect the feeder carefully for black mold. If you see any mold growth, soak the feeder in a solution of 1/4 cup bleach to one gallon of water for one hour.
To make nectar, mix one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water, bring to a quick boil and stir to dissolve the sugar. You can store the syrup in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

If the nectar becomes cloudy, it has spoiled and needs to be replaced. A sugar solution can spoil in as little as two days when temperatures are high.

Local Hummingbird Species

Vickie Miller has Anna’s Hummingbirds in her yard, along with the more common visitor in local gardens, the Rufous Hummingbird.

The male Anna’s carries an impressive rose red “bib” that covers his entire head and neck. Both males and females have iridescent emerald green backs and grayish underparts.

The Rufous Hummingbird male is known as the most aggressive of all the hummingbirds. He does not tolerate the presence of other males at “their” feeders and will chase anyone who dares to enter their territory.

The male has a rufous head and back (sometimes sprinkled with a little green), a white breast and an orangey red gorget. The females have a green back, light rufous sides and a creamy white breast.

The Calliope Hummingbird has been seen in western Washington recently, but it is a rare visitor here and prefers the east side. The Calliope is smaller than the resident Rufous Hummingbirds. The males’ gorget feathers are long pinkish red streaks of color extending from under the bill and down their throat.

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and photojournalist. Visit her website The (Almost) Daily News (almostdailynews.com), find her on Facebook (Kimberly Mason – The Chronicle), call 269-5017 or email kim@almostdailynews.com.