Feeding your neighborhood gang of finches may make you feel good, but depending on what you provide, it may not do the same for the birds’ stomachs. Like our pets, birds can’t eat many of the foods humans enjoy. However, unlike dogs and cats, our avian friends are wild animals that need to stay that way—don't ever feed birds from your hands and try to keep all human interaction to a minimum.
Even placement of your feeder needs to be done with care, particularly when it comes to windows. Birds can get confused by reflections and accidentally fly into the glass. “Window strikes take a huge toll on bird populations,” says John Griffin, the director of urban wildlife at the Humane Society of the United States. To avoid strikes, place a feeder either within three feet of a window or at least 30 feet away from it. “Within three feet they can’t get enough speed to do a lot of damage,” explains Griffin, and 30 feet is far enough away that they’re unlikely to get confused. What you fill those feeders with matters, too.
Let's talk about that! Here are some things you should never ever feed your local birds.
Furthermore, bread won’t kill birds, but it has zero nutritional value. And if birds fill up on it, they end up not eating the things they actually need. “Angel wing is a condition birds get when their bones don’t develop properly because they aren’t getting enough nutrition,” says Griffin, and this often occurs because bread is a staple of their diet. If the case is severe enough, birds won’t be able to fly.
Chocolate – Chocolate? What? Okay, so you probably weren’t planning to waste your premium 80-percent-cocoa bar on backyard birds. Consider this more of a warning not to leave chocolate lying around unattended. Chocolate is extremely poisonous for birds and if they eat some, it can be fatal. So, keep your candy stash safely inside.
Salt – Many of us have birdbaths in our yards and often you will see advice offered suggesting that by adding salt to the birdbath water it will not freeze in the winter. While this may be true, don’t ever salt the water in your birdbath. Yes, in winter, a little salt may help keep the water from freezing, but it can also hurt the birds you’re trying to help. The Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, a UK-based nonprofit organization focused on conservation, says that extreme care should be used when feeding anything with salt to birds. While salt is a part of birds’ normal diet, it’s easy for the tiny critters to overdose. (A better method to keep your birdbath from freezing is to float a small object in it and to check it regularly in cold weather.)
Pesticides - This one really ought to be a no-brainer! Do not offer birds any fruit or seed that has been treated with pesticides, herbicides or other potentially toxic chemicals. Remember that birds (even large ones) are actually rather small creatures an even small quantities of these chemicals can be fatal, and poisons may build up in birds' bodies to cause breeding problems or be passed along to young birds. If the fruit you want to offer birds is questionable, wash it before adding it to feeders, or opt for growing your own produce for birds.
Milk – Who feeds milk to the local birds? You may not be leaving milk out for birds, but if you're setting out a saucer of milk for a neighborhood kitty, please don't. According to the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, birds are very lactose intolerant, and milk can cause severe gastric distress. In large enough quantities it can even kill a bird. (Plus, it’s not great for that stray kitty, either.) Interestingly, like many lactose-intolerant humans, birds can eat small amounts of cheeses, though it’s probably best to just stick to bird feed.
Old Sugar Syrup - Hummingbird feeders are a fun way to attract tiny fliers, but leaving one unattended for days and days is a recipe for disaster. Sugar ferments in the sun, and if you’re not careful, you could be getting your flock seriously drunk. If hummingbirds drink too much fermented liquid, it can lead to organ failure and death. Make sure to restock your hummingbird feeder with fresh liquid every three days.
A quick look at the natural history of hummingbirds cannot help but impress on us that these are
mountain birds. The most diverse location in all the world for hummingbird species is the mountainous regions of Ecuador and Peru. This tells us that these birds probably originated in this location. The best way to provide habitat for any animal is to provide setting s that resemble where they are found in nature.
Hummingbirds need shelter. Mature trees that develop a canopy over much of the garden are going to be important. Some open sky is needed for escape, but after a short run in open sky these birds do retreat to a tree or shrub. Beneath the trees, shrubs for perching, to provide food and in some cases for nesting, will be important. This is often a significant part of the garden that is forgotten – the only shrubs you will see in many hummingbird gardens are those intended to provide food for the birds. A good selection of diverse bushes for both shelter and food purposes is vital to a diverse, dense population of hummingbirds.
Remember, while sugar is important to these birds, it is not the only food resource. We need to provide for not only their energy needs, but vitamins, minerals, protein and other nutrients as well. This is done with a carefully planned and maintained garden.
So, why plant a hummingbird garden? That is a valid question and I think I have a very good answer for you.
But even more than that, a hummingbird garden is going to provide the shelter, food, water and space needs of the birds. It will include mature trees, shrubs and bushes, perennial and annual wildflowers, vines and other plants that are especially attractive to these birds. Nectar producing
plants are only part of the picture – insect sheltering plants will also be critical. Water sources will also be important. All in all, a good hummingbird garden is going to be a beautiful, peaceful place for both you and the wildlife to enjoy. Oh, and a beautiful garden can increase the value of your home more than you might imagine!
While I cautioned above about hummingbird feeders, they do have a place in this type of garden, but not as the central focus. They should be used to:
- • Supplement plants that provide food resources
- • Position the birds in areas for easy viewing
- • Attract the birds to less used portions of the garden
A good hummingbird garden will include:
- Nectar producing plants designed for hummingbird attraction
- Plants with trumpet shaped flowers usually oriented horizontal or downward
- Insect attracting plants
- Plants with large, flat flower heads usually oriented vertically
- These are generally yellow or blue in color
All wildlife, including hummingbirds, require water. With hummingbirds there may be some concerns that are not addressed by the average bird bath or the wildlife water dish.
You must consider:
• Depth – most bird baths are too deep for hummingbirds
• Slope – you do not want steep sided containers since they are difficult for an animal to exit
Moving water is much more attractive to wildlife than is still water. Get the water moving by:
- • In bird baths, install a “water wiggler” device that vibrates in the tank creating a ripple
- • In bird baths, installing a dripper creates a constant supply and creates a welcoming ripple
- • In ponds, move water by circulating it through a pump or waterfall feature.
- • In the garden, a mister creates fine particles of water through which the birds fly and drink
- • In the garden, by providing moisture on the leaves of plants (left after irrigation) for birds to drink and bathe in
With Water Remember it:
• Should be fresh • Should be moving
• Needs to be shallow • Needs to be usable
You can do it to! Try the following plants and you will be surprised how many hummingbirds visit your yard.
Butterfly Bushes - are unbeatable in providing food for hummingbirds and butterflies, as well as a huge range of other insects. Unfortunately, they can be invasive in many areas, so choose sterile hybrids that don't produce seeds, such as Miss Ruby, which can grow five foot by five foot, or Lo & Behold Lilac Chip, which can grow to be 30 inches by 30 inches. Where butterfly bushes are not invasive, choose Butterfly Heaven, which grows to be six foot by six foot, or Peacock (Peakeep) in the English Butterfly Series which can grow to be five foot by five foot.
Cross Vine and Trumpet Vine – Both Cross vine and Native Trumpet vine are vigorous and flamboyant self-clinging vines. You can grow these vines on a trellis or sturdy arbor, or allow them to scramble through established shrubs and small trees because they will cling to bark like ivy. The vivid orange summer flowers of the trumpet vine especially, are much loved by hummingbirds, as are the yellow flowers of Flava and its dark salmony hybrid Madame Galen. However, plant this attractive vine with caution because trumpet vine is an aggressive spreader.
Scarlet Beebalm - This is another tough native that is a real hummingbird favorite and one of the most colorful perennials for the flower garden. Sadly, native species are prone to mildew, although keeping the soil moist will help to prevent this problem. Try one of the newly introduced mildew-resistant varieties, or the even hardier, Lavender-Flowered Beebalm.
As for me, I am very fond of the birds that visit my garden and I encourage you to attract them to your garden too, just be sure to give them the kinds of foods they need and you will be able to enjoy their visits for many years to come!