Off the Wall
- September 30th, 2008
- in Yachting
"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn. "
—Henry David Thoreau
Hummingbirds were unknown to Europeans before the first voyages of Columbus to the Americas. Hummingbirds range in location from southeast Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in the southern tip of South America and the islands nearby.
The first Spanish explorers classified them as Apodiforms, which means footless. From their observations, they believed these little birds flew from flower to flower, airborne their entire lives and never landing. It’s understandable with a brief glance, but truly they have beautiful little feet and legs and love to perch and rest while sipping nectar.
Hummingbirds are beautiful and amazing creatures. They have the highest metabolism and heart rate of any bird and are the smallest of all birds. The tiny male Cuban Bee Hummingbird weighs in at less than two grams (about the same as a dime) and is the smallest warm-blooded creature on earth. Because of this life in the fast lane, the hummer needs to consume over twice its body weight in nectar everyday, plus add in proteins (a departure from the old saying of “eating like a bird”). Their diet consists of about 75 per cent nectar and roughly 25 per cent protein, which they get from collecting flying insects, spiders and ants climbing in trees and shrubs. So don’t offer them a sugar substitute or honey thinking you are doing them a South-Beach kind of favour; they need the real thing to survive and reproduce. Also, don’t spray the garden with insecticide. Instead, invite so many birds in to dine that they clean up the place and achieve a near-perfect insect-free zone for you.
Zipping around the garden, hummingbirds can see a full colour spectrum and go for colour first over scent—they especially love red and orange. Bees and most insects can’t see red; they like yellow and are attracted by fragrance over colour. So it’s not surprising that many flowers have a symbiotic relationship with hummingbirds, by providing the nectar they need without attracting bees with a fragrance, in exchange for pollination.
In last month’s issue of the BVI Property Guide, I listed a few of the hummer’s favourite flowers and flowering trees to plant in your garden to attract these beautiful flying jewels and books to help you identify local species. If you don’t have a copy of the August issue, you can find it on line at www.bvipg.com
If you can’t landscape with the birds in mind, the next best thing is to hang a hummingbird feeder in the shade of the veranda or off the edge of the patio in the shade of a tree. If you are ready to shop for a feeder, I recommend looking for the following features:
- * Red plastic on the base (to attract the birds)
- * A glass bottle for easy cleaning (these won’t cloud up or look dirty over time)
- * The words “dripless” or “no-drip” in the description (these will not waste the sugar water and they attract fewer ants and bees)
- * Perches (the birds hang around longer when they can sit at the juice bar and relax)
Also, purchase or make an inexpensive “Ant Guard”. It’s a plastic bell that slips over the hanging wire so ants can’t crawl onto the feeder. The best are non-toxic with a bit of vegetable oil inside the bell. These you can freshen up when they wear down with a squirt of Pam cooking spray. If you are the handy type, you can easily make the ant guard yourself, using the red lid from the Pam.
There are many fancy feeders out there, but I suggest holding off on buying that gorgeous Murano blown-glass feeder until you have dozens of hummingbirds enjoying your garden. It’s always sad to see a beautiful feeder sitting idle with no birds visiting it. The single feeder tube and cork stopper styles look nice and are easy to find but they waste more nectar than the dripless varieties and the birds can’t perch. Often this type will empty itself in a day due to the changes in temperature and pressures in the bottle. When the feeder is empty the bird will go in search of food elsewhere, breaking their routine, so I favour the larger feeders that take the birds a couple of days to empty. My favourite feeders are the 30-oz. Perky Pet Hummingbird feeder (sells for around $10 on Amazon.com) and the Hummzinger 16-oz. feeder (sells for around $20 on Amazon.com)—this one is a bit easier to clean but it is strictly for hummingbirds and not for shorter-beaked nectar birds like the Bananaquits.
In the beginning, I don’t recommend filling your feeder with more than 10 ounces of liquid. It takes a while, sometimes a few weeks, for enough birds to become established in the garden to drink up 30 ounces of nectar before it has a chance to spoil. Birds have good taste buds; when it’s turned into soured flower nectar they will find another source. I now have five 30-oz. feeders that are emptied by the birds twice a week! So start low on the juice level and allow the birds room to grow into the feeder’s capacity. Remember, in this heat it must be emptied, cleaned and refreshed at least every three to four days to prevent fermentation, algae and molds that can harm or kill these beautiful little birds. Start with small batches in the feeder and freshen often (homemade nectar keeps well in the fridge for a week or so).
The “Instant Hummingbird Nectar” available pre-packaged may be convenient, but it has additives, artificial colours and preservatives that may be harmful to the birds and their young, and basically you are paying a lot for a very small pack of sugar. If you need to have it on hand for the odd feeder emergency (like someone house setting who can’t boil water) it will do, but try not to use it for long.
Clean your feeder often with a mixture of vinegar and warm water, and scrub with a bottlebrush. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant. After washing, rinse it well in clean water and the feeder should be squeaky clean and free of any residues that may harm the birds.
Never place the feeders in hot water or the dishwasher. Bleach and soap residue can harm or kill your birds. If you feel that to get it clean you need to wash it in a mild soap or bleach water solution, be certain to rinse all parts well in fresh water. Rinse, rinse and repeat. Birds can often smell chemical scents that we can’t and this may cause them to avoid the feeder. Every few months I soak my feeders overnight in warm water with a bit of Clorox added. It reaches into places in the feeder that can collect molds and grime that the brush can’t reach. Then I rinse them meticulously and dry before refilling. Refilling and washing all the feeders is a bit of a chore but watching the birds is a delight and in return they eat the insects around my flowers and patio, making my garden even more beautiful and enjoyable.
Bananaquits (Banana Keats) are another local nectar- and insect-loving species that I invite in to dine. On my kitchen window feeder (a Perky-Pet 30 oz.) I’ve removed every other yellow daisy from the feeder base (which leaves three ¼-inch holes) allowing Bananaquits to reach the nectar with their shorter beaks. In the Virgin Islands our Bananaquits are a unique, lovely black and white with a bright lemon-yellow belly (they are different in Puerto Rico and down island). Bananaquits are entertaining little clowns that happily help the hummers drink up the sugar water so there isn’t time for it to go bad. They are most active in the early morning and late afternoon when there have been as many as 20 birds on a feeder at one time. There are other less busy feeders around the garden they can visit, so they seem to thrive on being social, squabbling, playing and pushing each other off the feeder like a game of king on the mountain.
Recently, a pair of Anole Lizards has discovered this same feeder. At first they were a clean-up crew for the birds and licked up drips of sugar water, but soon they realized they could drink directly from the bowl. The female is small enough that she can place her entire head in the hole—a funny sight with her tail up in the air. All day this pair runs the kitchen window screen like a vertical racetrack, eating mosquitoes, small insects and spiders, so the extra sugar boost doesn’t hurt. I’ve also noticed them sipping nectar from flowers, and when it rains they hide in the big petals of the pink ginger plant as if it is a colourful umbrella. At any given moment there will be a Green-throated Carib or Antillean-crested Hummingbird, a few Bananaquits and an Anole Lizard on this one feeder… not caring in the least that the others are there.
I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.