Richard Day/Day Break Imagery
Q: Is it necessary to boil the sugar-water mixture for hummingbird feeders? I just stir until the sugar is dissolved. — Amy Kernes, Brea, California
Kenn and Kimberly: Opinions differ on the importance of boiling the mixture. We always do it to neutralize some impurities that might be in the water or sugar. Besides, sugar dissolves more easily in hot water. But as soon as the feeder is outdoors, contaminants will get into the water anyway, brought by hummingbirds, insects or just a breeze. So at best, boiling the mixture keeps it fresh a little longer. If your water is good and your time is limited, washing the feeder thoroughly and often is more important than boiling the sugar-water mixture.
Q: I have a 7-year-old oakleaf hydrangea in a shaded location. It grows a lot of healthy foliage that I have to prune regularly, but it bloomed only once or twice. Why do you think that is? — William Stovall, Charleston, South Carolina
Melinda: It’s all about the timing when pruning this and other hydrangeas. Oakleaf hydrangeas produce flower buds the year before they bloom. Keep pruning to a minimum to maximize the floral display. Remove only the damaged and wayward branches each year as needed. This helps control the plant’s size while encouraging it to bloom. Heavy pruning stimulates growth and results in a larger plant that needs additional pruning. Selective pruning leaves you with more stems with intact flower buds for a better bloom the following year.
Steve Dummermuth Jr.
Q: I took this photo near Scottsdale, Arizona. I think it’s an immature male, but is it a black-chinned or an Anna’s? — Steve Dummermuth Jr., Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Kenn and Kimberly: Young male hummingbirds are tricky to identify, because they’re often somewhere between the appearance of a female and an adult male. We think this is a young male Costa’s hummingbird for several reasons. The dark outline of the throat patch, extending down and back below the eye, is very typical of Costa’s at this stage, and so is the patch of pinkish purple on the lower throat. Also, the breast and sides are clear whitish—most Anna’s and black-chinneds show more of a gray-green wash on the sides.
Q: My shed was left open and I saw an eastern phoebe slipping out. Inside was a nest with four white eggs and two speckled eggs. What kind of bird lays eggs and leaves them in another nest? — Patricia Bourgeois, Douglas, Massachusetts
Kenn and Kimberly: The four white eggs in your photo were laid by the phoebe, but a female brown-headed cowbird is responsible for the two speckled eggs. Cowbirds are brood parasites and never raise their own young. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other songbirds, leaving the unwitting foster parents to hatch the eggs and feed the young. Eastern phoebes build open nests that are easy to find, so they are frequent targets for cowbirds. In some parts of their range, as many as one in four phoebe nests contains cowbird eggs.
Q: Do you have any tips for preventing squirrels from digging in my potted plants? I’ve tried mothballs and repellent sprays, but nothing seems to work. — Mary Rumbaugh, Midland, Michigan
Melinda: Squirrels are persistent and often destructive pests of container plantings. They have grown accustomed to humans and have all day to find ways to overcome barriers. It will take a variety of tactics and persistence on your part to keep them away. Try treating your plants with cayenne pepper as you plant, or use scare tactics, like motion-sensitive sprinklers and pinwheels. Cover new plantings with fine netting to allow air, light and water through but discourage digging. The squirrels may lose interest and move on. Once plants are established, remove the covering and monitor for squirrel damage.
Q: I came across this wild berry bush that several types of birds, including rose-breasted grosbeaks, cedar waxwings and a juvenile robin, were feasting on. What kind of plant is this? — Doug Gimler, Morgan, Vermont
Melinda: Birds and mammals love the red berries and pollinators appreciate the creamy white flowers of this native red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). There is some debate but the fruit is said to be indelible and slightly toxic to humans unless cooked. This elderberry typically grows 12 to 15 feet tall and wide. It prefers moist soil and full sun but tolerates some shade.
Q: One morning, a female hummingbird landed on the feeder, slowly leaned back and eventually ended up upside down. She ignored the other birds and, after a few minutes, flew away. What causes this behavior? — Donna Jenkins, Chesapeake, Virginia
Kenn and Kimberly: This odd behavior seems to happen because hummingbirds have weak feet and extreme variations in energy levels. Hummingbirds enter torpor (lowered breathing and heart rate) to conserve energy. This usually happens on cold nights, but sometimes they go into a torpid state during the day. When they’re sitting, their feet automatically clamp down, but on a smooth perch, they may slip and wind up hanging upside down. Usually this doesn’t last long and the bird isn’t any worse off when it awakens.
Q: What type of dragonfly is this? It frequents our backyard, and we’ve never seen a red dragonfly. — Chris Fisher, Vancouver, Washington
Kenn and Kimberly: You’re right, red is not a common color for dragonflies. This beauty is called a flame skimmer, and you’re lucky to have it in your yard—although flame skimmers are common in some parts of the West, they enter the state of Washington only in your area, just north of the Oregon border. Some smaller types of red dragonflies, called meadowhawks, are more widespread, so you might see those elsewhere in Washington.
Kimberly and Kenn Kaufman are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world.
Melinda Myers is a nationally known award-winning garden expert, TV/radio host and author of more than 20 books.