Friday, June 6, 2014

Keeping the Homeland Safe for Hummingbirds

Really, my days are filled with a lot more than watching the flight paths of hummingbirds. But when I finally get a few minutes to blog about adventures in the great outdoors, hummingbirds often are at the top of the list.

Today, for the first time in weeks, I actually saw no hummingbirds around the feeder. That was a drastic and disturbing change from having observed them buzzing in for licks of nectar every 10 to 15 minutes, as regular as clockwork, all this Spring, from sun-up to sun-down. I wondered if maybe last night's big thunderstorms caused some of them to relocate; however, then I thought, a hummer scared of aerial pyrotechnics? Not bloody likely.

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Just before dinner, when I prepared to wash out the feeder and add fresh nectar, the problem became evident. Fire ants had discovered the feeder and were making a steady march up the pole and onto and even into the nectar.

Taking my life into my hands (because South Carolina fire ants are almost as mean and nasty as Florida fire ants), I brushed off the little buggers, washed out the feeder, filled it with fresh homemade nectar (four parts water/one part sugar) -- and then moved the pole in hopes the ants will be thrown off track for a while.

Last fall, I discovered that wasps could try to take over the feeder. Doing some reading subsequently, I found that it is not unknown for wasps to sting and kill hummingbirds. So it is not surprising that hummers look warily upon the presence of wasps.

                                              * * *

What about ants? It seems unlikely that fire ants could reach a hovering hummingbird and sting it while it feasts. What then could be keeping these tiny birds away?  One look at ants floating in the nectar while others march steadily up the pole should provide all the answer needed. How would you like ants crawling all over your bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios while you tried to eat breakfast? Plus, gross ant secretions pollute the hummers' food source.

Pondering what to do to battle this scourge, I at first thought myself the first person on Earth ever to encounter this problem. Silly me. A Google search produced dozens of blogs with names like Antbusters, The Dirt Doctor, and Gardening-for-Wildlife that have addressed ants v. hummingbirds.

They offered ideas of varying practicality. One strongly suggested smearing Vaseline Petroleum Jelly on the feeder pole to halt the ants' procession, but another pointed out (persuasively, I thought) that this substance could harm the birds if they touched it, given that they have no way to remove such grease. (Few things are sadder than the sight of birds that have been coated after oil spills and such.)

Some enterprising bloggers suggested all manner of devices that could be built, using coat hangers, Bounce, tape and God-knows-what. However, all such solutions require a high degree of handiness, which I sadly lack. Did I ever tell the story here of how it took me an entire semester in my shop elective in high school to make a bookend with two pieces of wood? My teacher, the wrestling coach, exercised remarkable charity in awarding me a "C" for the class. My prowess as a handyman has not grown with age.

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There were some novel suggestions.

One Texas correspondent said spraying cactus juice around the base was an effective deterrent. Now all I need is some juice of the cactus. Another mentioned mint sprigs have properties that repel ants. I wondered if that included the fearsome fire ant, but this remedy probably could do no harm if tried.

When it comes to hummingbirds, I definitely want to follow the great physician's guideline: "First, do no harm."

Out of all the suggestions I harvested from the 'Net, my favorite involved instant grits. Just sprinkle the grits around the base of the feeder, and the ants will eat them; then when they drink water, the grits will expand, and -- BOOM! -- the ants will explode. (I pause here for Yankees to make jokes about our love for grits here in the Southland. As a matter of fact, I just had a nice bowl of them this morning along with my eggs and bacon in a fine eatery where the waitresses wear t-shirts with such sayings as "Nothing Beats a Great Pair of Eggs," and "Is My Crack Showing?" But I digress.)

Certainly, if I try instant grits as a land mine to blast ants, I should keep a video camera rolling to produce a YouTube video that would become an overnight sensation with views in the tens of millions.

For now, I think I will just check the feeder regularly and move it from one shady spot to another to stay ahead of the ants and keep the nectar from turning sour under the increasingly hot summer sun.
I will battle fire ants my old-fashioned way -- by pouring boiling water down their nasty mounds. That is my eco-friendly way of dealing with the problem. I don't want to risk poisoning birds or other wildlife and certainly not kids or Superdawg or other domesticated creatures.

Stay tuned for future reports on the war to make the homeland safe for hummingbirds.

                                                  © Robert G. Holland

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