Ask the Ex­perts

How to de­ter squir­rels in the gar­den, plus hum­ming­bird tips and more.

Birds & Blooms - - Contents - Amy Kernes BREA, CAL­I­FOR­NIA

Is it nec­es­sary to boil the sugar-wa­ter mix­ture for hum­ming­bird feed­ers? I just stir un­til the sugar is dis­solved.

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.

QI took this photo near Scotts­dale, Ari­zona. I think it’s an im­ma­ture male, but is it a blackchinned 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 blackchinneds show more of a gray-green wash on the sides.

QMy 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.

QDo 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.

QI 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.

THE FOR­MULA FOR SUC­CESS Stir up the per­fect sugar wa­ter by com­bin­ing 4 parts wa­ter to 1 part ta­ble sugar. But skip the red food dye!

PRUNE LIKE A PRO Study the shape of the plant be­fore mak­ing any cuts and make sure you al­ways use clean, sharp tools. Avoid over­prun­ing by cut­ting only a fourth to a third of the canopy per year.

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