Hummingbirds and Nectar

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Many of us feed hummingbirds. During much of the year these tiny birds survive on nectar, the sugary fluid produced by flowers in order to attract pollinators. Hummingbirds eat “meals” as do humans – a relatively large and quick intake of food. Whatever the concentration of nectar, the birds will eat something like 5-14 times their weight in nectar every day! They use a lot of this food energy to fly forwards and backwards, hover, and perch, but save enough to make it through the night without eating, although on cold nights they can drop their body temperature to save energy. Beating wings at 60-80 times a second with a heartbeat that can reach 1200 beats a minute uses a lot of calories!

Nectar means “drink of the gods” and is composed of a combination of sucrose (table sugar), glucose and fructose. Nectar also contains very small amounts of protein, and sodium and potassium salts. The amount of nectar in a flower varies from 10-100 calories, averaging about 30. So, if you feed hummingbirds, there is no special sugar concentration to use. During breeding season, hummers also eat insects because they are high in protein; nectar is very low in protein.

Other birds eat nectar as well, such as orioles, finches, and even woodpeckers.

If you feed hummingbirds a high concentration of sugar water, it will keep the birds around longer, but they will not feed as often. If you feed them a more dilute solution, they will feed more and you will see them more, which is really the reason you feed them, right? The other downside of a concentrated solution is that sugar crystals can accumulate on a bird’s bill and attract bacteria and make the feeder harder to clean. A 4:1 solution of water:sugar is more than enough; I prefer 5:1. And it is very important to keep your feeders clean.

Red coloration is attractive to hummingbirds because flowering plants and birds co-evolved with the flowers taking advantage of birds’ abilities to fly by attracting birds with nectar and shaping their flowers to be accessible to hummingbirds; the birds reciprocate by transferring pollen. Should you avoid red food coloring in the nectar? Although it’s not necessary as most feeders have red parts, there is no evidence that the dye is harmful to the birds.But it’s not necessary.

Will hummingbirds stop their migration in the fall if you feed them? No. Their migratory instinct is controlled by the length of daylight, not food supply. And if you go away for a few days or a week or two, you can let the hummer feeders go dry – the birds have other sources of food and they will not starve. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds of the eastern U.S. fly 500 miles non-stop over the Gulf of Mexico on their migration, so they have mechanisms to conserve energy when they need it

There are 363 species of hummingbirds in the world, the vast majority in South and Central America .


7 thoughts on “Hummingbirds and Nectar”

    1. I checked the scientific literature for a definitive answer.Although turbinado sugar contains only trace amounts of iron, hummingbirds will accumulate iron in their liver, eventually accumulating a toxic amount. So the answer is you can feed turbinado sugar for a short period of time if you like, but using it every time you refill the feeder and if the same birds return, it could be toxic. Besides turbinado sugar is more expensive. It’s cheaper and safer to use plain old white sugar.

    Here in Ventura, Ca. we usually see the end of the hummingbird season by the end of December. However this year we are seeing from 20 to 30 birds at a time who come to our feeders just before dusk.
    During the day, we have 4 to 10 birds at the feeders. This is about what we expect in summer. Now we are seeing 20-30 birds every evening in January and February, which has never happened.

    We would be grateful for any information about this unusual flocking of birds in winter!

    1. I can’t tell you exactly what is happening because I don’t know your local conditions. But due to climate change – global warming – birds are moving or staying farther north then they historically have. I get emails similar to yours quite often.

  2. I live in the southern US where we only have Ruby-throated hummingbirds and can have very hot days and nights during the summer. I have been looking for an answer to this question and hope you can help. Can hummingbirds drink cold, from the refrigerator, sugar water or is this harmful to them? Thank you.

    1. They will either eat it or reject it, it’s not a problem. How are you going to keep the sugar solution cold outside? They eat nectar at outside temperatures all the time, so it’s not necessary to try to feed them a cold solution.

      1. I’m not really trying to keep the sugar water cold outside. I make small batches of it but even that is more than the hummers drink in one day so I store the extra in the fridge. It is only cold when I first change out the feeders. The hummers will often come and take a drink as soon as I put it out. But others that feed hummers say that it should be brought to room temperature before being put out, that cold sugar water could harm or cold stun them.

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