- Ada, Oklahoma

September 15, 2013

Keep hummingbirds' needs in mind when buying feeders

Justin McDaniel OSU Extension Educator

Ada — Hummingbirds get the energy they need to maintain their astonishing metabolism primarily from flower nectar and the sugar water they find at feeders. For protein and other nutrients, they also eat soft-bodied insects and spiders. So essentially, hummingbirds need nectar to power the bug eating machine that they are.

There are many imaginatively styled hummingbird feeders available today, and they’re sold in stores ranging from birding shops and garden centers to discount marts, as well as by mail order. Most feeders are made of plastic, glass and/or ceramics. Since feeders are much too recent a development for hummingbirds to recognize instinctively as food sources, they must learn to use them, which they do from watching others and though their own natural inquisitiveness.  Any feeder can attract them, so perhaps the most important design feature to look for is ease of disassembly and cleaning.

Should you buy a feeder with perches? Many photographers prefer not to use perches, because they can get better pictures of hovering birds. But hummingbirds live at the edges of their energy envelopes, and perching saves a lot of calories. Consider that when hummingbirds feed from natural flowers, they spend very little time at any one blossom; on the other hand, they may drink from one feeder port until they are satiated, and hovering is considerably more tiring to them than normal flight. Give them a break and provide a place for them to rest. After all, many hummingbirds spend around 80% of their time perching anyway, on twigs and leaf stems.

The sugar water you use to fill hummingbird feeders is only a supplement to the birds’ natural diet. It’s not necessary to buy a commercial “nectar” mix that includes additional vitamins, protein or other substances, because the birds get all they need from the flower nectar and insects they consume. All they want from us is the quick energy they get from ordinary white cane sugar. It’s just fuel for chasing bugs and causes no known health problems in hummingbirds, whose metabolism is significantly different from humans.

Please, do not put honey, Jell-O, brown sugar, fruit or red food coloring in your feeder! Honey ferments rapidly when diluted with water and can kill hummingbirds. The effects of red dye have not been not scientifically tested, and it is not necessary to color the water to attract birds to your feeder. Further, there are unverified reports that red dye can cause tumors in hummingbirds; this may or may not be true, but why take the chance?

Here’s the recipe for artificial nectar (syrup) Use one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water.

It’s not necessary to boil the water. The microorganisms that cause fermentation don’t come from the water; they are transported to the feeder on hummingbird bills.

Store unused syrup in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

This mixture approximates the average sucrose content (about 21%) of the flowers favored by North American hummingbirds, without being so sweet it attracts too many insects.

Feeder maintenance: Hanging a hummingbird feeder means assuming a certain amount of responsibility for the well-being of a fragile and trusting animal.

Cleaning: Experts say that hummingbirds will starve rather than consume spoiled feeder syrup, so a dirty feeder isn’t likely to cause harm. But it may cost you the pleasure of their company if they abandon your yard for more reliable food sources elsewhere.

Every filling: Flush the feeder with hot tap water; a bottle brush can be very helpful. Do not use soap — apparently theydon’t like the taste, but bleach will remove it if you have this problem. Visually inspect the entire feeder for black mold; a bleach soak is the best way to remove mold. Discard any unconsumed sugar water — if the birds are not emptying your feeder between cleanings, just partially refill it. If the sugar solution in your feeder turns cloudy, it’s spoiled and needs to be replaced. When the temperature is over 80 degrees (F), clean and refill every three or four days. Over 90°F, it might spoil in two days.

At least once a month: clean the feeder thoroughly with a solution of 1/4 cup bleach to one gallon of water. Soak the feeder in this solution for one hour and then clean with a bottle brush. Rinse well with running water and refill. Any remaining traces of bleach will be neutralized by reacting with the fresh syrup, and there’s no need to air dry before refilling. Bleach is both safe and very effective.

When to take down the feeder: Hummingbirds will not delay migration if a feeder is present; they are driven by forces more powerful than hunger. This is a common misconception that has been proven to be untrue. If a feeder is maintained over the winter, hummers will visit it year-round. 

Hummingbirds can provide for hours of entertainment as well as decrease the bug population around the house.