The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Hummingbird Time in South Texas
Ro Wauer, August 31, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

September is synonymous with hummingbirds. That is when thousands of ruby-throated hummingbirds pass through South Texas en route to their wintering grounds south of the Mexican Border. These tiny flying jewels file through the Coastal Bend like an hourglass, coming from an incredibly wide swath of North America, from the shores of the Atlantic to the western edge of the Great Plains. Some south bound male hummingbirds may appear as early as July, and a few late migrants can be found through November, but the great bulk of migrating ruby-throats appear in September.

To commemorate this passing hoard, Rockport will hold its 15th annual "Hummer/Bird Celebration" this year from September 11 to 14. For anyone that has not attended one of these affairs, it is well worth the effort. The Celebration includes a wide range of activities from garden tours, banding demonstrations, a variety of pertinent talks, and a great assortment vending booths. I attend every year just to find early Christmas presents. More information is available at or the old fashion way: 1-800-826-6441.

What can be done at home to encourage passing hummingbirds to stay awhile? Since many of the thousands of migrating ruby-throats will pass right through our neighborhoods, we have a wonderful opportunity to get better acquainted. And the very best way is to offer them a treat, plain old sugar water, that they will readily take advantage of. The sugar water provides substitute nectar that will help them maintain their fat reserves for migration. Hummingbirds take considerable amounts of flower nectar, but they also feed on tiny insects, often taken from spider webs. In migration, as they hurry southward, handouts in the form of sugar water can be important.

I utilize as many as 30 feeders in my yard during the fall migration, but use only a half-dozen the remainder of the year. In September, there are occasions when eight or ten hungry hummingbirds will congregate around a single feeder, with dozens more sitting in the adjacent trees resting or waiting their turns. That is a lot of hummingbirds! Yet it happens every year.

Feeding hummingbirds is extremely easy. It takes only a store bought feeder filled with sugar water at a ratio of 1 part sugar to 10 parts water. I mix up a large jug (stored in the refrigerator) and use a small funnel to fill the feeders. There are times in September that I can go through a gallon of sugar water daily. My favorite hummingbird feeders are the "Best" hummingbird feeders made in Poteet, Texas. They come in two sizes and are easy to clean. Locations for hanging a feeder can vary from a tree limb to an overhanging porch, but place it where you can easily see it from inside the house.

Many times a hummingbird feeder will attract ants that can crawl into the water and drown, limiting use of the feeder by hummingbirds. The best method of discouraging ants is to place a 35mm film canister, smeared inside with Vaseline or other grease, on the wire; use an ice pick to force a small hole in the bottom. Another suggestion is to keep your feeder clean at all times. Although in September when the feeder must be filled and cleaned once or more times daily, at other times fill the feeder with only as much sugar water to last four or five days. Of course, temperatures determine how long a sugar solution will last before it begins to sour.

A question that always arises during a discussion about feeding hummingbirds is when to take feeders down. Will feeding hummingbirds in winter keep them from migrating and possibly dying? Absolutely not! Hummingbirds that are going to migrate will when they are readily, whether or not they are using a feeder. I feed hummers year-round. Although ruby-throats rarely remain for the winter, the larger buff-bellied hummingbird is a full-time resident in my yard. Plus, a few other migrants, such as the regular black-chinned, rufous, and broad-tailed hummingbirds and the rare calliope or Anna's hummingbirds just might appear and take advantage of your handouts for a few days.

If you haven't tried feeding hummingbirds, try it. You'll like it!


At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The correct ratio of sugar to water is:
1 part sugar to 4 parts water, meaning 1 cup water to 1/4 cup sugar or 2 cups water to 1/2 cup sugar or 16 cups water to 4 cups sugar, which makes 1 gallon sugar water. Choosing to make a weak solution from 1 part sugar to 10 parts water isn't nearly enough for keeping the hummers' energy level up. irections for feeding on every feeder I have owned recommends the 4 to 1 water/sugar.

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the formula is 4-1. I have read that if you make the solution stronger than this it can cause liver problems in these little guys but too weak will not give them the nutrients they need especially the juveniles preparing for the long flight. Juveniles will stay a little longer at feeders for this reason, but they will migrate. I live well north of Sacramento CA and some ruby throateds stay all winter, but only a couple. They are a joy and just yesterday we had our first adult male rufous. It makes buying sugar and fixing feeders worthwhile. I too like the 'Best' feeders and have used the same ones for years, after many replacements and disappointments with many other brands.

At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed feeding hummers for twenty years, and in several different parts of the country. I have also always used the 1-to-4 sugar water formula. And, just to prove the adage about old dogs and new tricks, this year I finally had an eureka moment to help me keep up with the increase in consumption during the migration frenzy. My eyes are getting weaker so that in recent years, it is difficult to detect from afar when the feeders are getting low. (I don't use any artificial coloring.) This year I hit upon a solution - I cut milk bottle caps which come in red, blue, violet, yellow and white, into quarters and stuff a couple into each feeder. The pieces act as floating gas gauges which are visible from fifty feet.

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Readers here may be interested in reviewing an article by Dr. Hainsworth and Dr. Reed, professors of biology at New York Syracuse Univ. (
These investigators basically say that hummingbirds will consume a very wide range of sugar/water concentration but will regulate the volume of their intake at each feeding so that their caloric needs are satisfied. While they suggest that a 1-2 ratio is average in nature, the range across all flowers that they sampled is higher than 1-1 to less than 1-10.

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