There he is: Humbird Humbird. I can see him out the back window, across the yard.
He’s tiny. He’s greenish gray with flashes of a magenta helmet. He hovers in the air, powerful yet graceful, in between sharp dives for sips of sugar water from a clown-colored feeder.
A few years ago, a friend with a hummingbird feeder christened his frequent visitor Englebird Hummingbirdperdinck, surely the greatest of all hummingbird names. When I recently set up my own feeder, I felt obliged to think up Humbird Humbird after Humbert Humbert, the antihero in “Lolita,” as a distant second for my little guy.
What, don’t all hummingbird fans apply joke names to their visitors? Why on Earth not?
Anna and friends
As I’ve learned since setting up my Christmas gift feeder, hummingbirds are fascinating to watch — and can take some commitment.
Hummingbirds are small, stocky, fast fliers. Many species have long, sharp bills perfectly adapted to sipping nectar from flowers — or from little holes in plastic feeders. Commonly spotted in city parks and suburban yards, hummingbirds’ West Coast habitat has been creeping north from California since the 1960s.
They’re called hummingbirds because of the distinctive sound they make while hovering in place, with their wings beating as quickly as 50 times per second. They fly as fast as 25 mph, but males showing off for females in “courtship dives” can jet as fast as 40 mph.
They may be quick, but one hummingbird adaptation to cool weather is doing nothing at all.
“Hummingbirds need a very high body temperature of between 104 and 108 degrees to survive,” local birder Cindy Caplan wrote in the WSU Clark County Extension Master Gardeners newsletter. “They adapt to winter by going into ‘torpor,’ a sleep-like state where they slow down their metabolic rate.”
If you see a hummingbird that appears ill or dead, even while perched at your feeder, let it be. It’s likely sleeping off the cold.
There are hundreds of hummingbird species around the world, but only four populate the Pacific Northwest and just one sticks around all winter. Calliope, black-chinned and rufous hummingbirds migrate south to Mexico. The little pink-and-green guy that started visiting my new feeder in January is an Anna’s hummingbird.
Speaking of names, why Anna? The bird is named for Anna Masséna, a French duchess and wife of an amateur ornithologist.
Female hummingbirds are green and gray. My Humbird must be male, because of his flashing magenta crown and gorget (throat) and his short, sharp, clicking chirp.
On one hand, it’s possible that Humbird really is one individual bird, since males tend to stake out and defend their feeders, zooming in from nearby if any competitors appear. (The higher the nectar’s sugar content, the more jealous they get.) On the other hand, hummingbirds get around the neighborhood to visit thousands of flowers daily. They look pretty identical to my eyes. So who knows?
A ratio of one part refined sugar to four parts water is right for hummingbirds. Brown or other types of sugar, including organic, have other ingredients that can spoil quickly. Honey and molasses are too heavy to be digested easily by hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds use the sucrose in white sugar to supply their quick-energy needs. For general nutrition and protein, they eat insects. They’re known to hover within clouds of insects and chow down.
While reviewing this issue of hummingbird naming rights, my friend reminded me that he took down his feeder last spring, after a general alarm went out about disease spreading among birds crowding at feeders. (At the time, the coronavirus pandemic was also spreading like wildfire, but among humans, especially those crowding at feeders.)
One year ago, local bird experts — from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to Portland Audubon — recommended taking down all baths and feeders for a period of several weeks to prevent the spread of salmonella.
The disease was spreading mostly among pine siskins, but official advisories included hummingbird feeders out of an abundance of caution.
The result was both heartbreak and confusion for hummingbird fans, who wondered whether abruptly removing feeders during winter wouldn’t be more dangerous to dependent birds than keeping them clean and working.
That debate goes on, as does a parallel one: How clean is clean enough? Audubon urges near-daily diligence.
“Hummingbird feeders need more regular maintenance (than other feeders) because sugar solution is a petri dish for bacteria. Empty and clean every few days … even more often when it’s warm out,” according to a recent edition of Audubon Magazine.
Vancouver Audubon officer Cindy McCormack underscored that point.
“Sugar water can grow bacteria and molds quickly, so the solution should be changed frequently,” she said in email. “The solution should look clear as clean tap water. If it gets even a little cloudy, you waited too long.”
Three or four days is probably fine during cold winter weather because cold prevents bacteria and mold growth, McCormack said. If your feeder gets direct sun, you should change the solution and clean the feeder as often as daily.
“Every time I refill, I clean,” said Ridgefield birder Susan Setterberg. “Soap and hot water and/or dilute bleach solution followed by a thorough rinse does the trick. I have a small brush at the ready to give the nooks and crannies a bit of extra attention. An old toothbrush works well too.”
Some sources suggest making nectar by carefully adding sugar to water in that crucial one-to-four ratio, then slowly bringing the solution to a boil. That’s not to get rid of water impurities but to slow fermentation of the nectar. Other sources say there’s really no need to boil water. Just stir the sugar water vigorously.
If you do boil, let the nectar cool again before putting the feeder out.
Some hummingbirders go to great pains to keep nectar from freezing with heat lamps, Christmas lights or bubble insulation wrapped around their feeders. Others don’t bother. If you are very dedicated, you can take your feeder in overnight so it doesn’t freeze. But put it back out in the wee hours, because that’s when hummingbirds start making their rounds.
Position your hummingbird feeder far enough away from any windows to avoid deadly bird-glass collisions.
Why is my plastic feeder the color of a clown nose? Because red, pink and orange flowers attract hummingbirds. To attract more throughout the year, consider planting these hummingbird favorites:
- Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry
- Wooly blue-curls
- Pitcher sage
- Western columbine
McCormack confessed that she likes the idea of skipping the plastic in favor of a more hummingbird-friendly landscape overall.
“Personally, I would much rather see a healthy backyard habitat,” she said. “Hummingbirds need protein, so they eat a lot of small insects and spiders. They use lichens, moss and spiderwebs to build nests. Providing a complex habitat is the best way to support hummingbirds and other species.”