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Welcome Back!  

By: Sandra Nelson


In a normal year, if there even is such a thing anymore, I would wait until the end of April to begin preparing for the return of my hummingbirds. After checking this year’s interactive migration map (  however, it appears that I don’t have time to wait. Ruby throated hummingbirds, our regional species, have already been spotted across the entire state of Missouri, including a spotting right here on the Katy Trail. 

ruby throated

My first task in getting ready for the birds is to thoroughly clean their feeders, including the tiny feeding ports. Since I didn’t do a meticulous end of season cleaning (no excuse but sheer laziness!), it’s crucial that any traces of   feederlingering mold, fungus and bacteria be totally removed, since they are all potentially lethal to hummingbirds. If they are allowed to grow inside the feeder, then the fungus can infect the bird's tongue, causing it to swell so much that the bird can no longer feed. Without being able to take in food, the bird will die within two or three days.

If you search online, there are multiple suggestions for cleaning hummingbird feeders. Some advocate hot running water and dish soap, while others warn against dish soap because of potential residue. The National Audubon Society recommends cleaning feeders with a weak solution of vinegar (1 part vinegar to 2 parts water) and hot tap water for routine cleanings. For more thorough cleanings, like my feeders need, either use 1 part bleach to 9 parts water or run them through the dishwasher. brush

Regardless of which method you use to clean your feeders, make sure that the feeding ports are scrubbed with microbrushes small enough to fit in a hole with less than a quarter inch diameter. These tiny hidden places rather than large, visible ones are more likely to be harboring fatal toxins. 

While the clean feeders are drying, make a quart of nectar by combining 4 cups of water to 1 cup of granulated sugar. Gently heat the mixture, stirring often, until all of the sugar is melted. Allow sugarthe mixture to cool completely before filling your feeders.  Please don’t add red food coloring. While the research is inconclusive, many experts believe that adding red food coloring to homemade nectar can have harmful effects for the birds. Homemade nectar stays fresh and healthy up to a week in the refrigerator.


For years, since there was only a single hummingbird that I could consistently count on to visit my feeder, I only put out one feeder. What I didn’t realize is that I only had one hummingbird because I only had one feeder. A single feeder encourages thetwo feeders most dominant male in the area to claim the territory as his own, chasing all others away. More options means more birds. The last few years I have put out three feeders –  one at each end of the yard and one in the middle. Each summer, more hummers make a point of visiting not only my feeders, but also the flowers I plant for them. (An unexpected benefit we’ve gained from hanging more feeders has been laughing at our original visitor trying to chase everyone else away. It seems like his greedy attitude keeps him from eating at all!)

bird chasingThe other important realization that I have come to is that good hummingbird design and the right flower choices are equally important in keeping urban hummers happy. Since city hummers have to cope with severely reduced natural habitat, they rely on us to provide pockets of nature that meet their needs. Hummingbirds use up a lot of energy as they search for food. A longer, more narrow garden keeps food sources close together, eliminating the need for extra flights from bed to bed. It also gives enough room for several birds to feed without feeling the need to defend their territory. Adding a curve to the bed is not only visually pleasing, it also gives the birds a better view of their surroundings, allowing them to watch for both competitors and predators. 

curved beds

Finding the “perfect” combination of plants for a hummingbird garden can be a frustrating task for the simple reason that there is no perfect combination. Instead, there are literally hundreds of combinations of plants that are good choices; that may or may not suit your hummingbirds’ palettes that day or even that season. Researchers now know that environmental conditions such as the availability and frequency of water, humidity levels, daytime and nighttime temperatures, soil type and access to light, as well as genetic changes from hybridization impact the amount and quality of nectar produced in individual blossoms as well as entire plantings of the same species. Changes can occur over the course of a single day or an entire season. (Which can explain why neighborhood hummers may flock to your neighbor’s cleomes but ignore yours. To make your search easier, I’ve put together a slide show of 15 plants worth considering. Please Click here to see some options for bringing hummers to your garden.

Finally, in my quest for a hummingbird haven, I’ve added a special birdbath designed for their preferences. Just like other bird species, hummingbirds enjoy taking baths. Unlike other species however, they don’t usually immerse themselves in water. Instead, they are attracted to moving water and prefer to dash under and through sprays of water. hummer bath(They will even shower by flitting through droplets of water falling off of large leaves after a rainshower.) Installing a mister or a spray jet in a shallow bowl placed a foot or so off the ground is a sure way to satisfy hummingbird bathers.A shady spot with nearby twigs and small branches for resting adds to the spa experience for the hummers. 


Last year our hummingbird population jumped from 2 to 4 regular visitors. I’m hoping that this year’s changes will bring even more of these entertaining little birds to our backyard.  I’ll keep you posted.