Along with the camellia blooms, winter in south Louisiana brings a few species of hummingbird, and Dennis Demcheck, an amateur bird watcher who has developed expertise over the years, and Jane Patterson, president of the Baton Rouge Audubon Society, shared their knowledge with Audubon members and the general public.
Demcheck spoke Jan. 30 to a group of Baton Rouge Audubon Society members about the birds that are increasingly spending winters in the Baton Rouge area at the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in advance of the 2015 Hummingbird Tour Saturday of four area backyards with reliable hummingbird sightings.
Demcheck’s talk centered on the behaviors and preferences of the ruby-throated hummingbirds, some of whom live year-round in the area, and other types — the rufous, buff-belly, and black chin hummingbirds — that can be sighted in winter, where some groups recover after their migration, either from South and Central America, or from farther north.
The best way to spot them is to provide them with attractive food and, maybe more importantly, Demcheck said, habitat.
“Joan LeBlanc’s house is one of those magic spots. I don’t know what she does, but she always seems to have a lot of birds at her feeders,” he said just after arriving at LeBlanc’s home, which was one of four stops on the hummingbird tour.
“Well, I don’t know what I do, either,” LeBlanc said, though according to Demcheck, her yard shows a few great examples of what bird lovers can do to encourage the birds to stick around.
She has several small feeders in many areas of her backyard, which is preferable to one large bird feeder, for a couple of reasons.
“The birds are not impressed by how large your container is. They won’t be more likely to come to a bigger feeder, and the chances are better that the sugar water will go bad in a larger container,” Demcheck said. “So it makes more sense to use several three-ounce feeders and forget about the large feeders.”
Also, he said, plant flowers that bloom in winter. As with other types of birds, hummingbirds prefer natural nectar that flowers provide and, more importantly, the bugs that fly around those flowers.
“The nectar is only a small part of the hummingbird diet, necessary because they move so fast and burn so much energy,” he said. They get their vitamins and minerals from insects — another great reason to attract the birds.
And that’s the reason that hummingbird food with supplements is unnecessary. “I never buy it. I just use sugar water. It’s less expensive, and it doesn’t go bad as fast.”
LeBlanc passes by a stunted camellia bush that she calls her Charlie Brown camellia.
“It’s sad looking, but I keep it there because the hummingbirds like it,” she said.
And not just for bugs and nectar. Demcheck also pointed out that less manicured plants and bushes give the birds good places to seek shelter from predators.
“Those bushes that are so well manicured they look almost like solid blocks? Birds can’t use those. They need nooks and crannies, places to hide,” he said.
Demcheck said the first thing he does when he buys a bird feeder is to take off the plastic flowers covering the feeding stations.
“You’ve seen those, right? Birds don’t care about those. The red color of the feeder is enough to attract them. Those plastic flowers are meant to attract the humans buying the feeders. They don’t do a thing for the birds,” he said.
In fact, they may do a lot of harm. Hummingbirds need their peripheral vision to be able to see trouble coming, which could be predator birds, and is often other hummingbirds, who are very territorial, and will fight over food sources.
“The plastic flowers mean they have to reach farther in to get to the food, and it can obstruct their vision. Also, it’s another part for mold to grow on,” he said. Make sure the feeders are clear, rather than colored glass. “Again, that’s something to attract humans, not hummingbirds. If you can see the water, you can tell right away if the food is clear or cloudy,” he said. Cloudy food is rancid food, and that’s another thing that will keep the birds away.
“Check your feeder often. Keep it full, and keep it clear. Food won’t last five days at my house. When it starts to get cloudy, it’s going bad, then it becomes hummingbird repellent,” he said.
Buy feeders that can be washed thoroughly, he said, and wash them regularly.
The best food is one part sugar to four parts water, and one part sugar to three parts water in winter, he said. “Don’t bother with red dye. We know it doesn’t do any good, and it’s possible it may cause harm, but either way, it’s unnecessary,” he said.
Given the birds time to find it, he said, and be patient. It may take more than a season.