On the proper care and feeding of hummingbirds

An article by Anthony Joseph in the Oct. 2 Monitor contained wrong information on the care of hummingbirds. The following is a correction: Hummingbirds require two things to survive: an ample supply of nectar, or sugar water, which they need for energy, and protein, which they get by eating insects so tiny they are difficult for the human eye to see.

The proper ratio of water to sugar is three or four to one. Too concentrated a solution can injure the bird. The use of honey, corn syrup, or maple syrup is questionable, too. It is a commonly held misconception that if sugar water can substitute for flower nectar, then diluted honey -- which, after all, is made from nectar -- must be even better. Not so, says Charles Sedgwick of the wildlife clinic at Tufts University Veterinary School.

``Honey can become contaminated with fungal spores [the common bread mold],'' he points out, ``which can endanger the little bird.'' So can any other liquid syrup.

On the other hand, Dr. Sedgwick feels that the danger of feeding diluted honey to the birds is ``more imagined than real.'' Fresh honey would represent no problem. ``The danger lies in using honey from a jar where the lid has often been left off and the honey has been exposed to the air,'' he says.

The Audubon Society recommends hanging hummingbird feeders from tree branches or on garden stakes. Feeders made specifically for hummingbirds are best. Or you can suspend at an angle a shallow test tube filled with sugar water. Don't use a wide-mouthed vessel, though -- it's too easy for a hummingbird to get the sticky solution on its feathers. All it needs is a few sticky feathers, coated with dust, ``to so unbalance the bird that it will be unable to fly,'' Sedgwick says. Remember, he points out, ``it takes five of these birds together to weigh just one ounce, so a little dirt soon becomes too much for them to carry!''

For the same reason, extreme care must be taken when using tanglefoot or some other sticky substance to prevent ants from getting to the liquid. The Audubon Society suggests smearing tanglefoot around the base of the stake suspending the feeder, or on the branch well back of the hanging feeder.

If you have several hummingbirds in your garden, you might hang out several feeders to prevent fighting. And don't forget to empty out unused sugar water every three or four days before it becomes contaminated.

If you plan to include flowers in your garden that will attract hummingbirds, contact the nearest Audubon Society for a list appropriate to your region. As a general rule, hummingbirds prefer trumpet-type flowers as these tend to be richer in nectar than most other varieties.

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