Ruby-throated hummingbirds are model guests, but keeping them healthy and safe does take some work on the part of the people hosting them. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

Bristol residents Don and Donna Morrell saw their first hummingbird of spring at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, April 15. “My wife put the feeder up last week,” wrote Don in an email to me. “We live behind South Houston Dam.”

Gordon Aiton, who lives on Elm Street in Erwin, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird of spring at 7:04 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

Phyllis Moore saw her first hummingbird — a male — at 7:50 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at her home in Bristol, Virginia.

Lynda Carter emailed me to report her first spring sighting of a male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder after lunch on Monday, April 15, and a second male appeared on Friday, April 19, a little after 1 p.m. Lynda said she lives at the end of Embreeville mountain in the Lamar community near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Susan Okrasinski, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of spring on Easter Sunday, April 21.

“On my way into the kitchen I just saw (be still my heart) the first hummer of the season — whoo hoo!” Susan wrote in a post on her Facebook page. “It was a female, which is unusual as the males come up first and the females follow.  What a nice Easter surprise!”

Joanne Campbell, who lives at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page about her first spring hummer. “Had our first hummingbird sweep into our courtyard on Tuesday, April 23,” she wrote in her post.

Every hummingbird’s arrival at our homes after an absence of nearly six months is nothing short of an epic achievement on the part of this tiny bird. According to the website, hummingbird.net, most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a daring journey across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer homes in the United States and Canada. They typically depart at dusk for their nonstop Gulf flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather.

Now that we’ve welcomed them back into our yards and gardens after such a harrowing journey, it’s important as good hosts to make sure these tiny wonders are kept safe.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a minute amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and mineral valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

Honey is another substance, although perfectly natural in its origins, that should be avoided. Honey encourages the growth of fungus, which can quickly incapacitate or kill a hummingbird. A packet of artificial sweetener might taste great in your iced tea, but do not add such substances to the solution in your hummingbird feeder. These artificial sugar substitutes offer nothing of nutritional value for a bird with an extreme metabolism with excessive energy demands. In theory, a hummingbird mistakenly feeding on nothing but an artificial sweetener would soon starve to death.

It’s also important to change out your feeders and clean them as often as every one to three days. In extremely hot weather reaching more than 90 degrees, the sugar solution may need to be changed and the feeder cleaned on a daily basis. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. I prepare sugar water and store it in plastic juice containers. Refrigerated, the solution will last longer and can be doled out on a daily basis until a new supply is needed.

Don’t use any type of soap or detergent to clean the feeders. The best advice I’ve read is to stick to hot water and vinegar, which will not leave behind a residue that could potentially harm the hummingbirds.

Do not put any sort of red dye or coloring into the sugar water, and do not purchase commercial solutions that incorporate red dyes. Some scientific studies suggest that red dye is a recipe for disaster with hummingbird. Such dyes are thought to lead to kidney failure and certain death for the hummingbird. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that banning red dye is an exaggeration of the peril. Taking that into consideration, I still err on the side of caution. Perhaps the red dye will eventually be proven harmless. Until that time, I prefer not to risk the health of my resident hummingbirds.

I’m often asked if the sugar water feeder itself should be red. There is ample evidence that hummingbirds are attracted to red. According to information from the National Audubon Society website, current thinking is that the red dye, as just mentioned, may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on a feeder is enough to attract them. Most feeders incorporate some red parts into their construction. People can mix their own nectar using 1/4 cup sugar to every 1 cup of water.

It’s a lot of work to attract hummingbirds and keep them safe and healthy. I’d like to think the rewards we get from these small birds make the effort worthwhile.