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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.
When you make up a batch of sugar-water solution to put in a nectar feeder, you can make it with boiling water or hot tap water, or just use running water as long as you make sure the sugar is completely dissolved before you pour the nectar into the feeder. Some people feel that boiling the water keeps the nectar solution from spoiling as quickly, while others disagree and say that it really doesn’t matter. During migration, there are people that feed hundreds of hummingbirds on a daily basis; they don’t boil the water for their nectar solution, because they don’t have time given the volume of nectar they’re serving each day. Others who feed hummingbirds are rigorous about the nectar-making process: boiling the water, stirring in the sugar, the cooling the solution in the refrigerator for hours before putting it in a feeder. As with most types of bird feeding, the key is to develop a system that suits your level of interest and ability to maintain it, while offering the birds appropriate foods in adequately clean conditions.
If making homemade hummingbird nectar is not your cup of tea, there are numerous commercial products sold either as ready-to-serve liquids or in powder forms that you mix with water and put in a hummingbird feeder. Many of these products contain red dye, because it’s well known that hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. But the use of red coloring in nectar solutions is an ongoing source of controversy — some hummingbird experts feel it may be harmful to the birds, and many believe it is at least unnecessary. While it’s true that hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, they’re also attracted to all the colors in the high end of the color spectrum.
Many of these prepared nectar products also advertise that they contain vitamins and minerals for the hummingbirds’ benefit, but that’s a subject on which experts actually agree: Such additives are unnecessary and a waste of money. Hummingbirds get all the nutrition they need from the natural foods they eat. Plus, by the time a ruby-throated, Anna’s, rufous, black-chinned, or other species of hummingbird is lapping up the artificial nectar solution in your feeder, most added vitamins and minerals are long gone.
Excerpted from Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success by Deboarah L. Martin. Published by Rodale.
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