Running the hummer numbers

I just ran across a post from last August on The Fat Finch Bird Brain Blog that addresses the frequently asked question about how to calculate the numbers of hummingbirds visiting your feeders. The bloggers based their formula on a book that they absolutely gush over, Hummingbirds of North America by Dan True. True is a meteorologist by profession and was the weatherman for an Amarillo, Texas TV station when my husband Tom was growing up there. Tom has fond memories of True rushing through his weathercast to have time to show his amateur wildlife films.

Nostalgia aside, I don’t share the TFFBB bloggers’ enthusiasm for True’s hummingbird book. It’s full of half-baked ideas, misinterpretations of other people’s work, and out-of-date information such as the sugar-consumption figure on which the TFFBB bloggers based their feeder-usage formula. They said they’d love to hear from anyone with different methods of estimating hummingbird populations around feeders, so I’ll share my take on the issue plus a couple of others. (Warning to math and chemistry geeks: Biology is messy business, so the measurements and calculations used below will be a bit sloppier than you might like.)

The actual statement from True’s book is: “Hummingbirds eat an amount of 25% content nectar that is equal to their body weight, daily (Skutch 1973).” The source cited is Alexander Skutch’s Life of the Hummingbird, which I no longer have in my library and so can’t check to be sure the number was cited correctly (the clumsy sentence structure suggests it’s not a direct quote). This is a pretty sweeping generalization to start with, and whoever came up with this figure miscalculated by a pretty large margin.

Studies of field metabolic rates (the average rate at which an organism consumes energy as it goes about its daily life) indicate that small hummingbirds such as Black-chinned and Ruby-throated are going to need 45% to 50% of their body weight in sucrose (a.k.a. white sugar, the dominant sugar in the nectar of hummingbird flowers) to get through an ordinary day, so they would actually need 180% to 200% of their weight in a 25% sucrose solution.

A 25% solution is much stronger than most people use in their feeders. The generally recommended proportion is 1 part table sugar to 4 parts water by volume, which comes out to about 18% sugar by weight. Converting to this recipe, it would take approximately 250% to 280% of the bird’s weight in ordinary 1:4 feeder solution to meet each bird’s daily energy requirements.

So, how do you use these data to estimate numbers of feeder visitors? The simplest way is to convert grams to fluid ounces so that you can measure the volume consumed (you can even mark your feeder and estimate usage on the fly).

According to my postal scale, one fluid ounce of 1:4 sugar water weighs about 35.5 grams (approximately 20% more than its plain water counterpart). We’ll average the weight of the birds to 3.5 grams, or about 10% of the weight of a fluid ounce. Multiply that times by 265% for average consumption and we get 0.265 fluid ounce of 1:4 feeder solution per bird per day, which we’ll round down to 1/4 fluid ounce per bird per day. This multiplies out to around 32 smallish hummingbirds per 8 ounces of 1:4 sugar water, 128 per quart, and 512 per gallon. This is higher than the TFFBBB estimate, which is not surprising considering the differences between our figures for weight and consumption rates of the birds and weight/volume ratio of the sugar solution.

Of course, there are a lot of factors that can skew this already crude estimate. The amount of sugar water each bird consumes may be greatly reduced when natural nectar sources are available and greatly increased when the birds are under stress from cold, drought, courtship, fighting, nesting, and/or migration. A given volume will supply the needs of more birds if you make your feeder solution a little stronger than 1:4, as many people (myself included) do in winter and migration, and fewer if you make it a little weaker. Size figures in as well, so a given volume of sugar water will feed fewer Anna’s than Black-chinneds.

The late William A. Calder III Stephen M. Russell, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and the world’s authority on Rufous and Broad-tailed co-author of the Birds of North America life history account on Black-chinned Hummingbird, estimated that a gallon of sugar water would feed about 750 Black-chinneds for a day. Based on published field metabolic rates, this number would be quite high unless you are a) using a ratio of sugar to water much higher than usual for feeders (almost 28%) or b) assuming that the birds are getting a significant fraction of their calories from other sources. I wish I knew how Bill Steve arrived at this figure, but since I don’t I’ll stick with the more conservative figures I derived from the metabolic studies.

Fellow hummingbird researchers Nancy Newfield and Bob and Martha Sargent have suggested a method for estimating hummingbird numbers that has nothing to do with sugar consumption. They recommend counting the number you can see at one time and multiplying this number by six. The nice folks at Bird Watcher’s Digest used this method to estimate their population of Ruby-throateds, but they also kept track of their sugar-water usage. Based on a half gallon of feeder solution per day, I’d estimate that they’re feeding over 250 hummingbirds, not the 139 they estimated by counting and multiplying. Of course this method would never work at really busy feeders like the ones at the home of my friends Bruce and Sue in Arizona’s White Mountains (below), but it’s one more approach to a challenging question.

Sitko hummers in the White Mountains, July 2007

One additional nitpick about the TFFBBB entry: It assumes that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate south across the Gulf of Mexico when the evidence strongly suggests that the majority take an overland route around the Gulf in fall migration. They didn’t get this from Dan True, whose book thoroughly documents his skepticism about trans-Gulf migration in either direction (he’s apparently unaware of the many Ruby-throateds that take refuge on offshore oil rigs and fishing boats each spring, along with other trans-Gulf migrants, or eyewitness accounts of them skimming the waves on approach to coastlines).

12 thoughts on “Running the hummer numbers

  1. Thank you for your comment to our post over at The Fat Finch and the helpful information you have provided us and our readers. We are always glad to be educated. We look forward to trying out the suggested counting methods.

  2. Doesn’t the nectar-consumption method also assume that the only birds using a hummingbird feeders are hummingbirds? A few orioles or woodpeckers (are any woodpeckers other than Gila known for visiting hummingbird feeders?) or nectar-eating bats stopping by can empty a feeder in a hurry.

  3. Good point, Andrea. This method is going to give you the most accurate estimate only if you don’t have orioles, woodpeckers, House Finches, nectar bats, ringtails, flying squirrels, bears, or even a lot of bees using the feeder. Of course, a bunch of these marauders (nocturnal mammals excepted) are also going to skew the count-and-multiply method by keeping the hummingbirds away from the feeder.

    The consumption method also depends on relatively little evaporation, which is a big problem in the desert during the dry season (one more incentive to clean and refill your feeders daily).

    It’s interesting to compare the birds I know have been visiting my feeder over the last couple of weeks (2 Anna’s and a female Rufous/Allen’s) with the two estimation methods. By the count-and-multiply method, the estimate would be double what I know for sure is here. By the consumption method, I wouldn’t think I had any hummers at all if I didn’t see them occasionally. I don’t know where they’re getting their sugar fix, but I seldom see them at the feeder except in really cold, miserable weather.

  4. Hello so how many birds do i have have 12 feeders 9 is quart size 4 – 5 quart a day ., have hardtime to count, once i got up to 40 one seating.

  5. If you’re using 1:4 sugar water, 4 to 5 quarts per day at about 128 smallish hummingbirds per quart adds up to 500 to 650 birds. Their sugar consumption goes way up during migration season, and these numbers assume that they aren’t using other feeders or flowers, but I think it’s a reasonable ballpark estimate. Where are you, if you don’t mind my asking?

  6. I can’t wait to try this this year!!! We tried counting but with no luck. With me at one end of the patio and my husband at the other we counted right at 60 hummers during last years migration. Martinsville, IN

  7. I make my solution at 25%, and go through 15 to 20 cups/day. This season I’ve gone through 60 pounds of sugar already (mid August), as opposed to 35 pounds last season. Is there any calculation based on how much sugar is consumed?. Central Virginia.

    • Hello, Boyd. If you’re making your solution 25% sugar by weight, multiply my estimates for consumption of 1:4 sugar water by 1.4. If you’re making it 1:3 by volume (which comes out to ~23% by weight), multiply by 1.3. Keep in mind that these are very rough figures and that the increase you’ve seen this year could be accounted for by a good breeding season producing larger numbers of young birds, poor local conditions forcing last year’s visitors to depend more on feeders in the absence of flowers, poor conditions elsewhere pushing new birds through your area, or just a growing proportion of local and migrant birds discovering your feeders (if you haven’t been feeding hummingbirds very long).

  8. i also live in the white mountains of arizona and the above picture got my attention. every year just after fledging(usually aug1-4) i get over a gallon per day consumption of 4-1 mix. i have 4 feeders under the front eves and have seen as many as 100 birds in attendance at one time.
    when i had feeders in the back yard there was no traffic, kids, mailmen or neighbors to disturb their feeding and i could not keep up..i was mixing a full 5 gallon igloo cooler of bird juice every other day.
    a gallon a day i can do.

    • During migration, a 3:1 recipe will provide the energy the birds need with less stress for them and less work for you. This is also a good recipe for early spring to help the first incoming migrants deal with cold temperatures.

  9. I live in south mid MO, I use 1 to 4 for sugar water second week in Aug we are having more sugar water consumed to the point they are consuming 15 to 16 cups a day no other birds are drinking and I don’t think we are feeding over 60 to 70 hummers a day. It has became a chore to keep their favorite feeders full and each feeder is 36 oz. I am getting ready to hang another feeder in their favorite location. Do you think we have more hummers than I think?

    • If only hummingbirds are drinking your sugar water, you’re feeding several times as many as you think. Even assuming that Ruby-throateds double their consumption rates to prepare for migration, that’s still 16 birds per cup per day, so at least 240 birds (probably more if flowers and/or other feeders are available nearby). Switching to a 1:3 recipe through the end of migration will allow the birds to meet their energy needs more efficiently and reduce the number of times you have to refill the feeders.

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