Last week’s column about wintering hummingbirds in the southern Piedmont generated some questions that I will try to answer today. A cold morning or two is in store this weekend, so the chances of hummingbirds showing up will increase as natural nectar sources die back.
Readers wanted to know how to keep the water from freezing, what hummingbirds eat during the winter, and whether the sugar-to-water ratio should be changed in the winter.
First, do not deviate from the standard 1:4 sugar-to-water ratio. I know there is a tendency to think the birds could benefit from an extra boost, but the truth is it can cause harm to the tiny birds.
While wintering hummers depend on feeders during their stay, sugar water is far from 100 percent of their diet. In fact, the birds need a steady supply of protein too, and get it by picking tiny spiders and other soft-bodied invertebrates off foliage and bark. Even on cold days when the sun is shining, midges and gnats are active; the birds can be seen gleaning them off trees and shrubs. It is when the weather is cloudy and cold that the birds will up their dependence on the feeder. Resist the temptation to add protein supplements that are marketed. Natural protein sources are all the birds need.
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Finally, a 1:4 sugar solution will not freeze until temperatures drop to 26 degrees Fahrenheit and below. At that point you will need to take some action. Options are to bring the feeders in at night and put them back out before dawn (NOT recommended), mount a warm light bulb adjacent to the feeder to keep it above 26 degrees, or wrap electrical heat tape around the feeder. The birds will not mind the light or the tape at all.
I typically get most initial reports of hummingbirds at feeders right around the Thanksgiving holiday. I guess folks are off work and can see any visiting hummers. Keep a close watch on the water level in your feeder. If a bird is visiting, you will see the level dropping.
Of course, there is no guarantee a bird will choose your feeder to use this winter, but you have a decent chance one will at least stop by as it wanders around. I hope you get to see one, and I hope you will let me know if you do.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.