Hummingbirds are one of the only wild creatures that we seem to be able to feed without harm. Our “sugar water food” that we call “hummingbird nectar,” is very close in composition to the pure natural nectar they harvest from flowers.11
If giving sugar water to birds doesn't appeal you, I agree. Every holistic corner of my mind rebels at the use of white sugar. I expected to write a negative editorial. Instead, I have found continual and unilateral support for the proper use of hummingbird nectar. Sugar is their natural diet.
The good news is that the hummingbirds purposely vary their diet. They eat insects for protein and tests show they will seek out and prefer natural flowers whenever they are available11 - assuaging my fear of creating little bird addicts.
The only caution about using hummingbird nectar is that you must mix the proper solution and clean and maintain your hummingbird feeder. Although these two tasks are small, they must be done with responsibility. So ask yourself...
Are you a good caretaker?
(I do not own a feeder because I am not home enough to maintain it.)
Change the hummingbird nectar every 3-5 days, and every 2 days
in hot weather or direct sunlight (over 70º).
If you do not, the solution will begin to ferment.
You know it is far past the right time
if the nectar has turned cloudy
or smells sour.10
Throw away the unused nectar and clean the feeder every time you change the solution. If the solution ferments - then you have a mess that has to be scrubbed and sterilized.
Hummingbirds seem to avoid fermented nectar. With dark humor, Dan True has suggested that natural selection may have killed the birds not smart enough to avoid bad food.11 Another source said fermented nectar tastes like sour milk. If you allow your hummingbird nectar to ferment, it will be a long time before the birds trust your feeder again.10
Use pure water to make hummingbird nectar (bottled has fewer chemicals.)5 Boil the sugar mix for two minutes (cover the pot so that evaporation does not change the concentration) and then cool before letting the hummingbirds drink. Boiling helps to prevent fermentation so you can feel confident that your food will last a few days.11
Refrigerate the unused hummingbird nectar – good for one week10 Date the container and err on the side of caution.
Hang your feeder in the shade to retard fermentation but take immediate precautions against ants. Hummingbirds like feeders in the shade better than sunlight.11
White sugar and beet sugar have been tested and are equally good. They have no significant difference in nutritional value and the minor difference in mineral content has no consequence.11
NEVER USE A MICROWAVE to heat your sugar solution. Microwaves heat the sugars hotter than boiling water and this breaks down the molecules – no longer suitable as hummingbird food.
NO FOOD COLORING. Food coloring is a chemical that has little effect on humans because of our size. These birds are small!! and they drink the equivalent of 300 lbs of human food every day. The dyes in food colorings coat the tongue and make it hard for them to drink5 – which is starvation to a hummer. See hummingbird feeders for info on color attraction.
Do not change the recipe – you will only cause harm.
HONEY IS BAD FOR HUMMINGBIRDS and kills the birds by causing a ghastly tongue disease. Artificial sweeteners have no food value – hummingbirds need real sugar.
TOO MUCH SUGAR does not match the natural concentration found in flowers. There are reports of people competing with their neighbors. They use more sugar because they want to have the feeder with the most hummingbirds. It is the proportion of sugar to liquid in every sip that keeps the hummingbirds healthy.
A false concentration of too much sugar may cause liver and reproductive problems. Too little will starve them. Actually, hummingbirds are too smart to starve and will simply scorn your feeder.
Commercial premixed (liquid) nectar is made with preservatives (bad for the birds) and is vulnerable to bacterial and fungal growths (early stages of spoilage are invisible). Dry commercial mixes cannot be trusted to be just white sugar (that would be a rip off.) Do not add anything – even the smallest amount. Everything else the hummingbirds need they will get from nature.
A special and expensive food mix for hummingbird health repair was/is? available from Germany and used by the San Diego Zoo.11
Cleaning: If you use any soaps/cleaners/chemicals, no matter how carefully, you may risk accumulated damage. If you want to be pure – clean feeders with pure hot water – often!5 There is great disagreement about this. In the article on hummingbird feeders, I list some of the controversial ways to clean your feeder that may be reasonable.
If you are going to attract hummingbirds to your garden, DO NOT USE PESTICIDES. Pesticides and chemicals accumulate very rapidly in a hummingbird system because of the high volume of liquids they drink. They are too small to fight the effect so take care.5
Here is the magic and simple recipe
to match the flowers that hummingbirds like
1 part white sugar to 4 parts water
in temperatures higher than 90º F
the birds need more water so use
1 part white sugar to 5 parts water11
For more information, please see hummingbird feeders.
Print this article