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Notes and Tips on Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds

Notes and Tips on Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds

By Jon Friedman

Much of what you read here comes from years of experience researching the natural history of North American hummingbirds, attracting and feeding them, and choosing what I consider to be among the best possible products to offer our bird-loving customers. Regardless of its sources, I believe this information is correct, up-to-date, and provides guidelines for attracting and feeding hummingbirds without causing harm to these tiny, fragile birds. Of course, no one intends to harm hummingbirds but, over the years, we have heard some alarming feedback from folks whose main source of (mis) information may have been people with no scientific background or specific knowledge of hummingbirds. Quite often, people tell us they were given specific information by their neighbors or friends (who surely didn’t mean to mislead anyone). Unfortunately, without doing their own research, they weren’t able to distinguish accurate scientific information from myth, folklore, or, simply, bad or misinformation. Hopefully, this article will provide information that is accurate, useful, reliable, and proven through observation, research, and direct experience.

Scientific Advance of Information
Even within the scientific community, there is sometimes controversy regarding certain aspects of hummingbird life. Suffice it to say that research continues at a faster pace today than it has over the last several decades. Several organizations are undertaking and publishing the newest research on hummingbirds. We have experts in the field right here in Arizona that are associated with the U of A, SABO (Southeast Arizona Bird Observatory), hummingbird banders and researchers (Susan Wethington, Tom Wood, Sherry Williamson, Larry Norris, etc). We read the research papers of other hummingbirds experts from the US and elsewhere. We belong to and/or are in touch with some of the major hummingbird organizations. Yet, there is still much to discover and add to the knowledge. For example, for decades it was thought that hummingbirds use their tongues much like straws and simply suck up their nectar. Then, after certain researchers decided to take a more in-depth look into this subject, it was discovered that their tongues weren’t round with a hollow space in the center. In fact, they discovered the tongues of hummingbirds are actually a V shape. It was assumed that the cilia fibers that coat the tongue actually forced the liquid nectar up their tongues and into their throats through capillary action. This quickly became the accepted theory and replaced the old straw theory. More recent research, just in the past few years, now shows that the feathery fringe material that is found on the edges of the hummingbird tongue, the lamellae, soak up mini amounts of nectar and when the hummer closes its bill, the nectar is forced into the throat by mechanical action. (See our website archive article, Hummingbird Bills and Tongues, for a more detailed description and slow motion, extremely close-up videography of the tongue in action). This is just one example of modern scientific research shattering the myth of how hummers intake their nectar.

Perhaps the most controversial topic is - exactly what is nectar and how does it differ from sugar water or other sweet liquid solutions? This debate will likely continue for years to come. Our attitude is guided by the mantra “Cause No Harm.” When considering what to offer hummingbirds in their feeders, we believe it is always preferable to err in their favor. Real nectar trumps any other substance. 

What Not to Use!
It has been well documented that hummingbirds will drink almost any sweet liquid from a feeder. Both scientists and some of our customers have experimented using a wide variety of sweet liquids. Sugar water (pure sucrose mixed with water) of varying sweetness and intensity has been tried. At a 5- or 6-to-1 ratio, pure sucrose (refined cane sugar from C & H or Domino, not beet sugar) will offer a second-best alternative to our nectar. Clear soda, such as Sprite, and colored sodas, such as orange- or strawberry-flavored sodas, and even darker colas, have all been observed being used by hummingbirds. Most of these soda drinks use high-fructose corn syrup, the least expensive and most harmful of all sweeteners. Hummingbirds have even come to artificially sweetened waters using Equal, Sweet & Low, and similar substances. Honey, molasses, agave syrup, raw sugar, turbinado or brown sugars should always be rejected for various reasons. These substances are raw or not fully processed into highly refined sugar, and as such, contain unacceptable amounts of bacteria and other foreign materials that can be harmful or fatal to hummingbirds. Dr. Augusto Ruschi, a Brazilian naturalist and hummingbird expert, discovered that honey-water mixtures breed funguses that attack the hummingbird tongues, eventually causing a bird’s death. As for artificial sweeteners, they have no substantial food or health value. However, it is critically important to understand that hummingbirds come to nectar feeders expecting to drink the same nectar that nature offers in nectar-producing flowers. After all, most feeder designs incorporate flower-like designs and/or food ports to attract the hummers to them in the first place. So to me, it’s like bait-and-switch to offer them any less beneficial liquid. Remember, cause no harm! If in doubt, err in the hummingbird’s favor!

I have answered many customer questions over the years regarding the water used to make nectar, such as, “What does 5 parts water…mean?” and “Shouldn’t I use absolutely pure water, such as distilled water, when making nectar?” These are good questions that deserve consideration when preparing the safest and most beneficial nectar. Just as there are differences between sugars and nectar, water is an essential element in making nectar and therefore differences in types of water also come into play. Admittedly, which water source to use is a consideration to keep in mind but, if we are really concerned about giving our hummers the safest nectar to drink, we should understand the differences in various water sources.

I always recommend regular tap water as my top choice. Tucson Water Company supplies most of the drinking water for most users in the Tucson Metro area. In outlying areas, smaller water companies supply household water from their local wells. Small private water companies have to test their water for health and safety reasons on a regular basis, just like Tucson Water Company.

Tap, or regulated well water sources, treat their waters to eliminate any potentially harmful ingredients. While they clean the water of elements that are harmful or potentially harmful, they do add non-harmful such as chlorines, flourite, etc. More importantly, they leave the mineral contact intact, which is necessary both for humans and hummingbirds - probably good for all living things that need water. To eliminate these ingredients that, by nature, would ordinarily evaporate out of the solution, we can do one of two things. Boiling the water will eliminate these chemicals quite quickly. Or, nectar can be made a day ahead and let it sit in an open container overnight (in the refrigerator or not) and by morning those substances, like the chlorines, will have evaporated.

When boiling water, always do it without the nectar concentrate - just boil the water by itself. Always add the nectar last. This is good to do for a couple of important reasons. Boiled water, it is generally agreed, will slow down the fermentation process by about a day giving the nectar a full three-day shelf (or feeder) life without being refrigerated. Boiling the water absolutely guarantees no harmful substances remain.

Staying within the guidelines of the recipe formula (5 to 1) is easier and more accurate when pre-boiled measurements are in play. For example, if you boil the water first, then measure what you need, you will avoid concentrating the nectar further. The amount of water that evaporates is quite substantial so it is always better to measure after boiling. Remember to always add the nectar mix to prepared water and never boil the water with the nectar in a microwave as it can increase the sweetness level.

Many homes use filtered, reverse osmosis, and /or water that is chemically softened. Avoid using these sources as they may strip the water of necessary minerals, or they may add unnecessary and harmful ingredients like sodium or other chemicals. The simple home filters, like Brita, use charcoal-type or membrane-type filters and will eliminate 99% of the harmful ingredients and allow the mineral content to remain. These are OK to use. If you have a home with a soft-water system, there's probably an outside faucet that's not connected to the system. Use that water to make your nectar.
Avoid using distilled water as everything is stripped out of distilled water and it doesn't provide even the most elemental and beneficial minerals that hummers need.

The Holland Hill line of feeders is very popular with the hummingbirds. Small capacity tubes insure no spoiled nectar. Window models come with perches; perches are available as an accessory for all their other models. They are handmade in Missouri using sturdy braided copper wire and glass tubes. Choose from window, hanging, or potted plant models.

Nectar vs. Sugar Water
Perhaps the most controversial topic is - exactly what is nectar and how does it differ from sugar water or other sweet liquid solutions? This debate will likely continue for years to come. Our attitude is guided by the mantra “Cause No Harm”. When considering what to offer hummingbirds in their feeders, we believe it is always preferable to err in their favor. Real nectar trumps any other substance. 

Without getting too scientific, here’s a simple explanation of the difference between simple sugar water and real nectar. First of all, “real” nectar (some may argue) is only found in nature’s plants. What we do know is that all naturally occurring nectar is a blend of several different plant sugars – usually dominated by fructose, sucrose, and, most importantly, glucose. Some of nature’s nectars may contain different, but usually small, amounts of other plant sugars such as dextrose or the hextos's. However, it is the combination of plant sugars with glucose that differentiates plain simple sugar water from the more complex nectar. Mammals, such as humans, can metabolize sucrose and other sugars into glucose. As glucose, the solution is quickly absorbed into the body and converted into instant energy. Hummingbirds, not being mammals, aren’t very efficient in converting other sugars into glucose. So the overwhelming majority of pure sucrose and other simple sugars pass quickly through their system and most of it is expelled as excrement. Only about 10% is retained and converted into glucose. Without being converted into instant, usable energy, the hummingbird is at a disadvantage as it had to expend energy without getting the energy it needs in return. This is not a benefit to hummers. Keep in mind that hummingbirds have evolved over thousands of years with naturally occurring nectar and that their anatomy and physiology are ideal for metabolizing nectar into energy. If we are going to attract hummers, let’s give them what their energy requirements respond to best.

We are convinced that the nectar The Wild Bird Store offers is simply the most beneficial nectar on the market. In addition to being more like Mother Nature’s nectar than any other homemade or commercial product, our nectar contains no additives at all. No artificial colors or flavors, no preservatives, no enhancers, no stabilizers, no emulsifiers nor any of the foreign ingredients found in other products. Other commercially mixed hummingbird nectar recipes often contain multi-preservatives that can be harmful to the hummingbirds. One needs to make this assumption even if the label makes no mention of the trace elements that by law can be in the mixture without the consumer’s knowledge or printed on the label. Shipment and shelf-storage times give bacteria and fungus increased opportunities to multiply in these preparations. The blend of sugars we use parallels wild nectar better than any single sugar can. For those who want to read more about this subject, go to wildbirdsonline.com where you will find essays on these subjects.

Aspects’ Hummzinger line of pan-type feeders are the superior feeders on the market. They all have: no drip, no leak, no spill bases; are insect proof (both flying and crawling bugs); are constructed of UV stable polycarbonate; can hang or be pole mounted; easy to fill and clean; have perches; come in various capacities of  8, 12 and 16 ounce models; have unconditional lifetime guarantees.

Clear or Colored?
A less controversial aspect of nectar for hummingbirds is the color. Nature’s nectar is clear. Adding food color is unnecessary and potentially harmful for a variety of reasons. Most feeders have red incorporated in the design. Our research shows that the color of the feeder is nearly inconsequential, as hummers will come to feeders no matter what their color. Most are red because red flowers usually have slightly sweeter nectar than flowers of most other colors. For more information on this subject, see the website archive article I wrote called Hummingbird Color Preferences.

Recipes and Ratios
Another hotly debated subject among hummingbird enthusiasts has to do with the “strength” or sweetness level of the nectar we offer to the birds. When we refer to recipes or formulas, such as 4 parts water to one part nectar (or 5 to 1) it is important to keep in mind that whatever measurement  (part) you use, that same measurement, or part, should be the same for both the wet or dry ingredients. In other words, one ounce of nectar to five ounces of water or one cup of nectar to five cups of water. Never mix the sizes of the measurements. For example, don’t use one ounce to five cups. Also important to understand is that measurements are either described as by weight or volume. When making nectar, it is easier to use cups, or ounces, in both measurements. That way, a standard measuring cup will do the job for both the liquid and solid ingredients. Just pick ounces for smaller amounts or cups for larger amounts.

There is also a difference between concentration and sweetness level.  When using our nectar, one never needs to worry about sweetness level. It will be consistent. However, concentration is something to be aware of. Unless covered, boiling water quickly evaporates. In your outdoor nectar feeder, it also evaporates - just not as quickly. If you start with a four to one recipe, especially during our hotter weather, it will evaporate, and become more concentrated after a three day period, to a three to one ratio, which I believe is too concentrated for birds to wholly benefit from. So, protect your concentration level as well as keeping your nectar as fresh as possible. As fresh as possible means changing the solution in feeders every three days on a regular schedule and not allowing stored nectar in the refrigerator to become more than two weeks old. If you have extra nectar that is two weeks old, get rid of it and mix a fresh batch.

The Dr. JB’s line of gravity-fed feeders offers extra thick durable materials, wide mouth bottles for easy filling and cleaning, a base with perches, removable food ports for easy cleaning  (and easy access for nectar eating bats), bee/wasp-proof,  and a variety of bottle sizes that all fit the standard base. They are available in 16, 32, 48, and 80 ounce capacities.

For decades, before modern research techniques, most people used a standard 4 parts hot water to 1 part nectar recipe, which was the normal, accepted recipe. Until more contemporary times, it was assumed that sugar is sugar, sweet is sweet. The fact is, there are several distinctions to be made regarding the various different plant sugars. In nature, with naturally occurring native wild flowers, nectar is always a blend of sugars, not a simple single sugar. This is nectar that the birds need not only to survive, but to thrive. Each sugar has its own inherent sweetness level. This mixture of natural plant sugars enables the hummers to immediately metabolize the solution and instantly turn it into quick energy, without waste.

In nature, the sweetness level of naturally occurring wildflower nectar averages about 21%. This percentage is much closer to a 5-to-1 ratio than the 4-to-1 that had been popularly used. I think the prevailing thought was that sweeter is better. We now know this is not the case except in unusual circumstances. The 5-to-1 ratio recipe (which in actuality between 18 and 22%) is particularly beneficial to those of us here in the hotter and drier climate of the Sonoran Desert. I believe the hummers need and perform better with the 5-to-1 recipe. We know they fulfill nearly all their internal moisture needs with the nectar they drink. The extra measure in water helps them do three things critical to their well being.  First, it helps their bodies fully metabolize all the sugars so none are wasted. Second, it provides extra moisture for quenching thirst. And third, it is a great aid in rehydrating their bodies. These considerations are important, perhaps critical, for the desert regions in particular.

Jon’s Hummingbird feeders are made by and for The Wild Bird Store exclusively. They feature no-drip glass bottles in several colors, recycled Spanish glass, hand-crafted copper tendrils, and come in a variety of sizes from 3.5 to 13 ounces.

In northern states where daily average temperatures rarely reach really hot numbers, a 4-to-1 recipe can be used without hesitation or harm. But, like any liquid solution offered to hummingbirds, it should be changed frequently, at least twice a week in order to prevent fermentation and bacteria setting in and contaminating the solution. However, here in the Sonoran Desert, in our unique and harsh climate, I always recommend the 5-to-1 formula for year-round use.  I recommend a 6-to-1 formula when our hottest season brings average daily temperatures to 105 degrees or more. (In extremely hot weather it may be necessary to change the nectar solution in the feeder every other day rather than twice a week.) The hummers will benefit from this practice and their well-being won’t be stressed with the additional water content. Many of our customers now use the 6-to-1 recipe all year. Some have even increased the recipe to 7-to-1 without losing any hummers to sweeter nectar nearby.  While the more diluted nectar meets all the hummers’ needs more efficiently, it also gives the consumer more bang for the buck by lowering the per-ounce cost of the liquid nectar, bees aren't as easily attracted to more diluted nectar.

Feeder Placement/Strategic Location
We know that hummingbirds are unique in the avian world as they are the only species that can fly in any direction, up, down, forward, sideward, backward, right-side-up and upside-down. These abilities are essential to their ability to forage more effectively and avoid predators and confrontations with hummingbird competitors. Most folks who feed hummers also know, and probably have observed, alpha birds (usually adult males, of some species in particular) will claim a feeder as their own and guard it against other hummers while they are present. I’ve heard many folks describe this behavior as mean, selfish, tyrannical, and combative. While it is easy to label the behavior, I think it is important to understand why this territorial behavior is prevalent in alpha birds. In North America, hummers may have to visit 60 to 80 nectar-producing flowers in order to get the equivalent of a single drop of nectar. (Flowers found closer to the equator have larger amounts of nectar than those further from the equator.) This means the average hummer must visit over 5000 nectar-producing flowers daily where the nectar hasn’t been usurped by other hummers, bees, butterflies, bats, etc. This is hard work, uses much of their available energy, takes from dawn to dusk, and instills a sense of ownership in the birds. Alpha birds, in particular, will defend these sources of life-sustaining nectar against any other hummer trying to usurp “their” nectar. The hummingbird feeder(s) that they have discovered in your yard, from their perspective, is an unending supply of energy that will keep them from having to travel far and wide in search of smaller sources of nectar. To meet their energy demands, these birds must feed from once to 12 times per hour, depending on air temperature and the individual bird’s activity. Reducing hummingbird competition with strategic location of multiple feeders is the best way to attract increased numbers of birds.

Once we begin to have some understanding of how hummingbirds behave and why, we can devise methods to overcome or at least diminish this type of behavior. Employing what I call “strategic location” of the feeders has proven to be an effective method of attracting more numbers and species of hummers while reducing the number of combative encounters with alpha males. Occasionally, dominant females can be alphas. However, it is more likely that when you observe multiple hummers at a single feeder the composition of the group is dominated by females and juveniles. These birds tend to be less aggressive and more willing to cooperate and share the feeders with others. Usually, adult males will want to exert their territorial supremacy over more submissive females and juveniles. Exceptions can always be found, however. For instance, if you live on a major migratory path, it’s possible to see hungry and tired males put down their fierce territoriality and share at the feeder in order to survive.

To understand the so-called “feistiness” of some hummingbirds, keep in mind that these birds have the highest energy demands of all warm-blooded creatures. If we had to eat 100% or more of our body weight daily in order to stay alive, we too would probably be feisty toward interlopers of our food sources.

Distance between Feeders
Strategic location means separating the feeders so that a territorial hummer cannot see another feeder from the one he/she is using. In other words, out of sight, out of mind. So instead of using a single 32-ounce feeder, use four 8-ounce feeders that are strategically located. An easy example of how this works is to locate one feeder on each side of the house: one on the north, east, west, and south sides of the house. If a male defends any one of those feeders, he will stay with that feeder until he is satisfied. Meanwhile, the other three feeders can attract multiple hummers. Even if the visibility of some of the feeders is less than ideal from the human perspective, take comfort that the other feeders may be the ones that multiple hummers gather at.

Height above Ground
A second consideration of strategic location involves the height of each feeder above ground. Most species are specialists when it comes to pollination and foraging from the nectar of particular flowers. Each species has co-evolved with the ability to take nectar from particular flowers that, due to the uniqueness of each species’ bill shape and length, prevents other species from competing with them. This is nature’s strategy for insuring the survival of all species. We do see migratory species such as the Allen’s and Calliope in the Tucson region. Both of these species are known for favoring flowers (nectar sources) that are close to ground level. Installing a pan feeder on a dowel at 6”-12” above ground level will help attract those birds when they are present. Conversely, hanging a feeder at the highest level may help attract Rufous’ and migrating Magnificents. If you install your feeders on four sides of the house and place the feeders in staggered heights above ground, more species can be attracted. Having a foot to two feet of height between feeders will always attract more species than the same four feeders at equal heights. For example, the feeder on the north side can be mounted on a dowel or stake so it is only inches to a foot above ground level. Turn the corner to the next side and that feeder can be 2 to 3 feet above ground level. Turn the next corner and install that feeder 1 or 2 feet higher than the previous one and the same for last one. Folks who have followed this advice report back that they now have more hummers, and more hummer species, than they previously did.

I hope I have shed some light on some of the most commonly asked questions regarding attracting and feeding hummingbirds in a safe and beneficial manner. Of course, there are other questions that could easily fit this subject but in the limited amount of space we devote to our feature articles, I have tried to address some of the common and widespread concerns. For those who want more information regarding hummingbird life, visit our archive of recent years’ articles on our website – wildbirdsonline.com. Click on the Birding Articles menu tab and select the desired article by clicking on any title.  There’s a wealth of articles unlike others you may find at different sites. Most of the articles in our archive deal with issues and birds that we experience here. If you have further questions that you cannot find the answers to, just call the store and ask away. Happy Hummingbirding!

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