For The Answer
Express-News Weekly Column
Saturday, September 20, 2003
Submitted by Calvin Finch, Ph.D., Conservation Director, San Antonio Water System, and Horticulturist
FEEDING THE BIRDS
Now is the best time of the year to observe hummingbirds. For quick action place blooming firebush or firespike on the patio and hang sugar water feeders under the eaves or on a trellis. A little later this fall you can also start feeding the seed-eating birds for the winter.
Waves of migrating black-chinned and ruby-throated along with a few rufous hummingbirds move through our neighborhoods on the way south (the route is often not direct). As the birds move through they visit neighborhoods where there are nectar-producing blooms available. Salvias, pentas, desert willow, esperanza, cigar plant, cape honeysuckle, zinnias, and poinciana are popular. If you really want some action, firebush (Hamelia patens) seems to be the most popular hummingbird plant for full sun. They are available in full bloom in containers at most nurseries now. Even the 1-gallon $2.99 special will attract the toughest bird of every group. As new birds arrive there will be squabbling for dominance.
Firebush is a root hardy shrub that freezes back every winter. In late spring it emerges again to grow to about 2 feet tall in a 5-gallon container or 4 feet tall in the garden. They begin blooming in late summer. Grow firebush in full sun.
Firespike (Odontonema strictum) is almost as attractive to hummingbirds as firebush and grows in the shade. The red flowers grow on spikes above the shiny green foliage. Firespike is also available at area nurseries in containers right now.
Hummingbird feeders are available at most supermarkets, retail nurseries, and pet stores. The largest selections of models are available at the wild bird stores. All of the feeders have a reservoir for the sugar water that feeds out to the hummingbirds through a tube or other opening. Mix 4 parts water with 1 part sugar by volume. We mix up 1 gallon at a time and store the remainder in a milk jug. This time of the year the hummingbirds will often go through a container or two per week. They also often get help from golden-fronted woodpeckers and house finches who also like the sugar water.
Even if the birds do not consume all of the solution every week it is best to rinse the reservoir out and fill it with new sugar water. Pour the old sugar water in a shallow pan for the butterflies. The wild bird supply stores have brushes manufactured specifically for cleaning the feeders.
The hummingbirds can be expected to entertain you through the end of October at least and often through November. Sometimes a few rufous hummingbirds will bless a neighborhood with their presence until January. Hummingbird experts assure us that our feeders do not discourage the little dynamos from heading to warmer climates. They will go when their instincts dictate whether sugar water is available or not.
About the time the last hummingbirds move on, it is a good time to start feeding sunflower seeds and thistle seeds to the seed-eating birds. Cardinals, titmice, chicadees, Inca doves, jays, and other species will welcome the sunflower seed. The American goldfinches return to San Antonio sometime in early winter. They will join the resident lesser goldfinches and house finches at thistle feeders. Squirrels do not much care for thistle seed, but they will quickly destroy a wooden feeder to access the sunflower seed. Consider a steel feeder with a weight-sensitive perch to keep them from consuming the seed. Set the perch at white-wing dove weight and you can also deny them access. Do not feel too bad, both the squirrels and white-wing doves will get plenty of seed on the ground and you will not have to get a bank loan to pay for the seed to keep your feeders full.