Feeding hummingbirds has long been popular in western North America, where up to eight species may be seen cavorting, dive-bombing and defending artificial feeders. Hummer feeding is now catching on in the East, even though only one species is generally seen there. If you haven't yet experienced the joys of backyard hummingbirding, here are a few tips to get you started.

Selecting a Hummingbird Feeder

You can buy the choicest sunflower seeds, place them in the most scientifically designed feeder, and you still won't attract hummingbirds. To bring hummers in you need a special feeder, one designed to dispense a sugar solution similar to a flower nectar, the hummer's principal food.

Hummingbird feeders need not be intricate or expensive. In fact, many folks build their own from a bottle, a rubber cork, and a drinking tube like the ones used in hamster cages. But many fine feeders are commercially available. What features should you look for?

First, a hummingbird feeder should be easy to fill and to clean. So before you purchase one, be sure that the fill hole is readily accessible. Then take the feeder apart. Is it full of small, hard-to-clean nooks and crannies, or does the design allow access to all surfaces with a scrub brush? Glass feeders, while fragile, are easier to clean than plastic ones.

Also, choose a feeder with some red coloration, which seems to attract hummers. Or, enhance the attractiveness of a feeder yourself by painting the feeding ports with red enamel paint or nail polish, or by attaching red ribbons or plastic flowers.

Finally, your feeder should have bee guards — small plastic screens placed over the feeder ports that keep insects away from the sugar solution but allow the hummers to insert their long bills into the nectar. Be sure that the guards are firmly attached, so they won't fall off in high winds. If you plan to place your feeder in full sunlight, purchase a saucer shaped, basin-style feeder. Inverted-bottle feeders tend to leak when the sun heats the air trapped at the top of the bottle, causing it to expand and squeeze the nectar out.

Placing the Feeder

Hang your feeder in the shade, protected from the wind, and near some perching sites. Buffeting breezes can spill the sugar solution, while hot sun may spoil it. Hummers are bold, so don't be shy about hanging the feeder close by, where you can see it well. Feeders that attach to a window without suction cups provide excitingly close encounters.

If you've never seen any hummingbirds in your neighborhood, the feeder alone may not draw them in. You might tie some red ribbons where they'll flutter in the breeze; better yet, plan ahead and plant some of the flowers that attract hummers.

Filling the Feeder

Once the feeder is in position it must be filled. We suggest making the sugar solution yourself: to one cup water, add one-quarter cup of sugar (4:1 ration). Bring to a boil. Then let the solution cool, fill the feeder, and store any extra in the refrigerator. The recipe may be doubled or tripled. Use ordinary table sugar, not honey, which promotes the growth of mold and bacteria. And don't add red food coloring — it isn't necessary in a properly designed feeder, and the dye may harm the birds'excretory system.

Some folks worry that hummers will become malnourished on a diet of straight sugar water. They probably would, but your backyard hummers will supplement their feeder refreshments with plenty of small insects. Therefore, commercial mixtures with added vitamins represent a needless expense.

Feeder Maintenance

To curb the growth of harmful molds and bacteria, make it a habit to clean your feeder every three days, even when temperatures are cool. It's much easier to fill a feeder that has not become black with mold! Discard the old solution, then rinse the feeder well with very hot water, using a bottle brush to scrub any hard-to-reach places. Do not use soap or detergent. Or, clean your feeder by filling it with a vinegar solution and some uncooked rice grains and shaking vigorously.

You may find that your feeder attracts ants and bees. To discourage the ants smear Vaseline on the feeder support pole, or try Burd Corporation's high-tech device called "AntScat," which repels ants with a little well of vegetable oil. If bees are a problem, simply move your feeder to a new position and the bees will lost track of it, at least for a while. The hummers won't mind.

Hummingbirds are territorial and quite aggressive. You might hang out a multiple perch feeder only to find that a single male dominates it, defending his food supply with such a vengeance that other hummers cannot feed. If this happens and you want to see more than one hummingbird, try setting out several feeders, placing them so the aggressive bird can see only one or two at a time.

If you've never hung out a hummingbird feeder before, why not try it this summer? It will open up a whole new world of backyard birding.

Hummingbird Species by Region

East and Midwest: Ruby-Throated

Western Mountains: Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Callipoe, Rufous

West Coast: Allen's, Anna's, Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Callipoe, Costa's, Rufous

Southwest (Common species): Allen's, Anna's, Black-chinned, Blue-throated, Caliope, Costa's, Magnificent.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright Cornell Lab or Ornithology. Bird Bulletin Number 2. Cat. No. 212. September 1992