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Nectar for Hummingbirds and Others
Like the other birds we enjoy at our feeders, hummingbirds do not rely upon the food we provide for their survival. Nectar feeders attract hummingbirds to our yards so that we can see the tiny birds up close and admire their dazzling colors and their physics-defying flight, but the feeders are for our benefit — not the hummingbirds’. They have gotten along without man-made nectar for countless centuries and would be fine even if no feeders were ever put out for them again. Hummingbirds use nectar feeders because they’re available and full of free food. If you truly want to make a difference for the hummingbirds that live in your area, create an inviting backyard habitat for them that includes trees and shrubs to offer shelter and nesting sites, as well as flowering plants to provide nectar and attract the tiny arthopods — insects and spiders — that make up most of a hummingbird’s diet.
On the Hummingbird Menu
Hummingbirds instinctively know where and how to get the nutrition they need, and it comes from far more than just nectar. They also eat tiny arthopods, such as spiders, fruit flies, midges, and countless others so small they’re referred to as “no-see-ums.” Some biologists and others who have studied hummingbirds extensively think of them as little flycatchers, because they consume so much protein from the insects they eat along with the carbohydrates they get from nectar. Hummers will explore every flower they find, but they quickly learn and remember which ones produce the most nectar or have the largest supply of insects. People unfamiliar with what and how hummingbirds eat often mistakenly think the tiny birds are getting nectar from some flowers just because they’re red, when in fact they’re poking their bills into the blossoms because there are lots of insects in them. If you observe hummingbirds a lot, you’ll see that they fly back to the perches just like flycatchers do.
Hummingbirds’ bodies, like human bodies, are designed to process and digest the foods they eat in a certain way. In the wild, the birds naturally choose flowers that produce nectar that is 20 to 30 percent sugar. To mimic that, the sugar-water solution you serve in your feeders should be 1 part sugar to 4 parts water: for example, 1/4 cup sugar in 1 cup of water.
Use only white sugar, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that if 1:4 is good, than 1:3 is better — because it’s not. Don’t make your sugar-water solution any stronger than 1:4, and don’t use sweeteners other than white sugar. Never use honey, brown sugar, molasses, powdered sugar, or any sugar substitute. You may meet people who tell you they’ve substituted another sweetener for sugar in their nectar solutions without any ill effects on the hummingbirds at their feeders. But the truth is that there’s little way of knowing what happens to birds once they leave our feeders. In exchange for the pleasure we can get from watching birds, the least we can do is offer foods that are appropriate and unlikely to cause any harm.