Search of the Week: “what can I feed hummingbirds to get them protein”

salvia-flowers

Sugar water is a substitute for the nectars of hummingbird-pollinated flowers, which provide the birds with energy-rich sugars, water, some electrolyte salts, and little else. Almost everything else their bodies need, including protein, comes from eating insects, spiders, and other small arthropods. (Salvia sp. in my garden, copyright S. L. Williamson)

Hummingbirds do need extra protein in their diets during the nesting and molting seasons. Here are some tips for helping them meet their protein needs:

  • Don’t use broad-spectrum pesticides in your yard: Many common yard and garden pests, including aphids, whiteflies, and various annoying gnats and midges, are just the right size for hummingbirds to eat. Even if the birds don’t sicken and die from eating poisoned prey, spraying pesticides destroys an essential source of natural nutrition and makes your yard less attractive to them. Switch to targeted, low-risk remedies for specific pests, such as a hard spray of water under leaves for aphids and various forms of the natural pest pathogen “Bt” (Bacillus thuringiensis) for caterpillars and mosquitoes. Also, beware of purchasing hummingbird flowers from mainstream garden centers. Many of these plants have been unnecessarily treated with the same neonicotinoid pesticides that have been implicated in the terrifying declines of honeybees, native pollinators, and native insect-eating birds.
  • Cultivate a compost pile: Fruit flies are attracted to decaying vegetable matter, including fruit rinds and scraps. Garden experts often advise against adding fruit to compost piles/bins in part to discourage fruit flies, but these tiny insects provide excellent hummingbird food while aiding the composting process.
  • Grow your own fruit flies: There are lots of recipes on the Web. When a culture matures, just set the container in your garden and open it so the flies can escape.

The one thing you absolutely, positively should never, ever do is add protein supplements to your feeder solution. It’s unnatural, the solution will spoil much faster, and the birds will not like the taste. (Captive hummingbirds drink protein-rich liquid diets, but only because they have no choice. They’d much prefer flower nectar or sugar water for energy and water and a variety of insects and spiders for protein, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, etc.)

More on what to put (and not put) in your hummingbird feeder:

Feeder Solution Evolution, Part I: The Basics
Search of the Week: “is molasses ok to feed hummingbirds”
Feeding Hummingbirds: The dangers of red dye
Beet juice in hummingbird feeders: NO!
Search of the Week: “hummingbirds won’t eat instant nectar”
Search Roundup: Feeding hummingbirds
Keeping hummingbird feeders clean

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“Chemical-free” sugar?

My reply to the following e-mail bounced, so I’ll answer it here:

I’ve read the first part of your article on hummingbirds about what  to make when you feed them.

Before reading the article, I just made hummingbird food with organic sugar. I am concerned about the addictive and other chemicals in white sugar. Is there any white sugar available on the market that does not contain chemicals?  or a way to transform organic sugar in white?

Thank you for your time.

In the strictest sense, there is no product of any kind on the market that doesn’t contain chemicals. I’ll need to know what specific substances you’re concerned about (other than iron) before I can answer your question, but the way it’s phrased suggests that you may have fallen victim to fear-mongering hyperbole about white sugar. In that case, this post may be helpful:

Search of the Week: “if refined sugar is so bad for us then why do we feed it to hummingbirds??”

One feederful of organic sugar isn’t going to kill hummingbirds because the iron concentration is very low. It’s chronic exposure to excess iron over weeks, months, or years that may cause illness and death. Unfortunately, there is no simple home remedy for removing the residual iron from organic/”raw”/turbinado sugar.

Keeping hummingbird feeders clean

Hummingbird Feeder Cleaning Kit

Brushtech Hummingbird Feeder Cleaning Kit at Amazon.com (click image)

If you’re like me, you’ve got a collection of toothbrushes, baby bottle brushes, and even well-washed mascara brushes sitting next to your kitchen sink for cleaning hummingbird feeders. The problem is that tools made for other cleaning jobs don’t always work as well for such a specialized task, so it’s nice to see a set of brushes made especially to reach the nooks and crannies of typical hummingbird feeders. The big brush in this set could even get into the enclosed bases of some of the cheapo feeder models to remove crud you can’t see.

Of all the nasties that grow on hummingbird feeders, the nastiest and hardest to control is black mold. A 15-minute soak in a dilute solution of chlorine bleach*⇓ (1 part bleach in 10 or more parts water) is very effective at killing black mold on non-porous surfaces, but an hour-long soak in white vinegar is a less toxic alternative (NEVER use bleach and vinegar together: you could kill yourself!). In either case, follow up the soak with a thorough brushing to remove dead mold colonies and other organic growths, then rinse well and let the feeder dry before refilling to allow the odor to dissipate.

An even safer mold killer that’s much kinder to your nose than bleach or vinegar is 3% hydrogen peroxide, the medicinal kind you can buy in any drug or grocery store. The downside is that it’s much more expensive than bleach or vinegar. A frugal alternative to traditional soaking is to add a couple of ounces to the feeder bottle, screw on the base, invert the feeder and swirl gently over a sink or bucket to make sure the peroxide covers all inside surfaces, then allow it to stand for at least 10 minutes. While the peroxide is doing its work from the inside, spray the outside with more peroxide to kill any mold growing there. Follow the treatment with a good scrub, including the ports. and rinse well to remove any debris. No drying needed; the peroxide will leave no odor, and the only residues are water and oxygen.

This advice applies mainly to bottle-style feeders. Saucer feeders such as the Aspects Hummzingers can be cleaned by hand using dish detergent and the small port brush in the kit above or washed on the top rack of the dishwasher. If any stubborn debris accumulates in the built-in ant moat, the little ball-shaped brush in the Brushtech set will swish it away.

Regardless of what type of feeder you have, it will need cleaning and refilling every 1 to 3 days in hot, windy, and/or rainy weather and every 4 to 6 days in cooler, calmer, drier weather, whether the birds have emptied it or not. If you can’t make a commitment to good feeder hygiene, it’s best to plant flowers instead.


* There’s a persistent myth that using chlorine bleach to clean feeders will kill hummingbirds. It won’t as long as you rinse the feeder well, just as you would if using bleach to disinfect your own dishes or your pets’ dishes. Any minute traces of chlorine residue will be rendered harmless by reacting with the sugar in the feeder solution (the same thing happens when you mix sugar with chlorinated tap water).

Search Roundup: Feeding hummingbirds

Parasol beaded feeder

If you have an urge to get fancy with how you feed hummingbirds, do it with the feeder itself, not with the contents.
(Par-A-Sol hummingbird feeders at Amazon.com)

Some recent searches on the theme of what to put in hummingbird feeders:

“can you make hummingbird food with brown sugar”

Please don’t try this. Brown sugar contains molasses, which is rich in iron, and excess iron can be deadly to hummingbirds. Use that brown sugar to make some delicious chocolate chunk blondies or pineapple upside-down cake instead.

“can you make hummingbird nectar out of organic cane sugar?”

“organic evaporated cane juice hummingbird nectar”

Again, the light beige color of semi-refined sugars, including organic sugar and “evaporated cane juice,”* indicates the presence of potentially toxic iron (though at a lower concentration than in brown sugar). Until some company comes out with a fully refined white organic sugar, it’s safest to stick with non-organic white sugar. GMO sugar is a non-issue, but some people report that hummingbirds prefer pure cane sugar to either beet sugar or blends of the two (which are usually just labeled “sugar”).

“should you feed hummingbirds high fructose corn syrup”

No. HFCS is made up of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose, which are components of sucrose, the most abundant sugar in the nectars of hummingbird-pollinated flowers. Hummingbirds get all the glucose and fructose they need by digesting sucrose, and HFCS has a greater likelihood of contamination during the manufacturing process.

“how much orange extract to put in hummingbird nectar”

NONE. That product appealingly labeled “Pure Orange Extract” is 79% alcohol plus a little water and orange oil squeezed from discarded orange rinds, not the good part of the fruit. It’s not nutritious, it won’t attract the birds, and it may harm them. At best it will probably attract bees. Seriously, don’t do this.

“can i use vanilla in hummingbird feeders”

*sigh* “Pure” vanilla extract also contains alcohol—not as much its orange counterpart, but still the equivalent of 80-proof booze. Hummingbirds don’t pollinate vanilla orchids, nor do they need flavored sugar water to encourage them to visit feeders. Again, you’re more likely to increase your bee problems, which won’t be popular with your hummingbird clientele.

“is koolaid safe for humming birds”

NO. Kool-Aid contains petroleum-based synthetic dyes, artificial flavorings, preservatives, and other things that are at best useless and at worst harmful to hummingbirds. A glass of Kool-Aid every now and then won’t kill you or me, but what do you think would happen if we ate 100+ packages of the dry mix every day? That’s the equivalent of a hummingbird’s daily intake, minus the water and sugar (the only ingredients in prepared Kool-Aid that hummingbirds actually do need).

Feeder solution colored with tart cherry concentrate

This feeder’s contents are colored with organic tart cherry juice, not synthetic dyes. The birds prefer plain sugar water, and the juice makes the solution spoil faster, so I don’t encourage this.

“can u add [fruit juice] to hummingbird food”

You can, but again you’re asking for trouble, including premature spoilage and bees. If you’re thinking of substituting fruit juice for dye in plain sugar water, the least problematical kind of juice isn’t available in the average grocery store: it’s a concentrate strong enough that just a couple of teaspoons will color an 8-oz. feeder. I’ve tested several concentrates, and the one that has the best color and least objectionable flavor to hummingbirds is tart cherry. Black cherry doesn’t give as bright a color, and the birds didn’t like cranberry (it’s probably too bitter). Because adding the concentrate will provide more nutrients for yeasts to grow on, you’ll need to clean and refill the feeder more often to keep ahead of spoilage. As with the flavor(ed) additives above, you may notice more interest from bees and wasps, which love fruit juices. Plain sugar water may not be as pretty, but it’s easier on your time and bank account with fewer problems.

More than a century of backyard experience and scientific research into hummingbirds and their flowers has established beyond doubt that a fresh solution of white sugar in good-quality water served in clean feeders is all you need. No dyes. No flavors. No “supplements.”


* All cane sugar is produced by evaporating water from cane juice. This is just a snake-oil name for cane sugar that still contains a lot of its original contaminants.

Related posts:

Feeder Solution Evolution Part I: The basics

Search of the Week: “if refined sugar is so bad for us, then why do we feed it to hummingbirds??”

Search of the Week: “hummingbirds won’t eat instant nectar”

Beet juice in hummingbird feeders? NO!

Search of the Week: “is molasses ok to feed hummingbirds”

Search of the Week: “can I give hummingbirds mountain dew?”

Search of the Week: “hummingbirds won’t eat instant nectar”

Lucifer Hummingbird female

All of Arizona’s famous feeding stations use plain sugar water to attract avian celebrities such as Lucifer (above, female), Magnificent, White-eared, and Violet-crowned hummingbirds. (photo © Sheri L. Williamson)

Maybe they’re trying to tell you something. Most of the “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products on the market are adulterated with petroleum-based artificial dyes and/or preservatives, so it’s safer if the birds don’t eat them.*

Even products that claim to contain natural coloring aren’t necessarily trustworthy. On a recent visit to one of the big-box pet stores, I encountered three versions of a brand of “instant nectar” touted on the Web as containing “natural red coloring.” The ingredient list showed that the concentrate and one of the two powders contained FD&C Red No. 40, which has been found to cause harm in laboratory animals at dosages substantially lower than a hummingbird would be exposed to by drinking one of these products. The label on the other powder listed beet coloring, which may not be the best choice of natural coloring for hummingbirds for reasons I explained in an earlier post.


* The few “instant nectar” products that don’t contain unnecessary and potentially harmful additives may not hurt the birds, but they’ll put an unnecessary dent in your bank balance. They’re ≥99% sugar priced at five to ten times what you’d pay for white granulated sugar at the grocery store. What you’re really paying for is the colorful, “convenient” package, not a better product. If you’ve got cash to burn, try superfine or caster sugar, which dissolves more quickly in cold water than regular granulated. Organic sugar, “raw” sugar, and “evaporated cane juice” are other pricey alternatives that might seem worth the extra green, but their beige to brown color indicates the presence of iron, which is known to be a potentially deadly problem for hummingbirds. Until we know more about how much supplemental iron hummingbirds can tolerate, they’re not worth the risk.

Review: Feeder Fresh Nectar Defender

(Originally submitted at Duncraft, which I do not patronize because it sells various overpriced “nectar” products that contain artificial dyes, preservatives, and/or other potentially harmful additives that don’t belong in hummingbird feeders.)

A bad idea

1out of 5

The active ingredient in this product is reportedly copper, which is an essential micro-nutrient at natural (low) intake levels and a potentially toxic heavy metal at higher doses. The fact that copper accumulates in birds’ bodies combined with hummingbirds’ extreme appetites increases the risk that the copper in this product will accumulate over time to levels that may cause scientifically documented problems such as behavioral changes, developmental abnormalities, reduced egg production and nestling survival, etc. That’s a pretty high price to pay for reducing feeder maintenance.

Rethinking winter hummingbirds

This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in 2010 in my “Out the Window” column in WildBird magazine. Though the focus is vagrant hummingbirds of migratory species, many of the issues apply equally to semi-migratory hummingbirds such as Anna’s that have expanded their range into areas where winter survival depends on feeders. 

Anna's Hummingbirds are the most cold-tolerant of any North American species, but even they can't survive extended periods of subfreezing weather without help from their human hosts.

A hungry male Anna’s Hummingbird fills his crop moments after a thick layer of fresh snow was brushed off the feeder. Anna’s are the most cold-tolerant of all North American hummingbirds, but even they can’t survive extended periods of subfreezing weather without help from their human hosts.

For more than 20 years I’ve been telling people that it takes more than a bottle of sugar water to keep a healthy hummingbird on the breeding grounds when its instincts tell it to head south. Though that’s still true, it doesn’t apply to the increasing numbers of vagrant hummingbirds whose instincts lead them not to the tropics or the relatively mild southern and coastal parts of the U.S. but to cold latitudes where their chances of long-term survival are slim.

In some cases, these seemingly lost and doomed migrants do make it through the winter with a little help from their human friends, even surviving to return the following fall. It’s the less fortunate ones and the dilemmas they pose for their hosts and admirers that caused me to rethink my longstanding advice to leave hummingbird feeders up in fall.

The vast majority of wild birds live and die without a single human ever taking a personal interest in their welfare, but hummingbirds aren’t most birds. Their deceptive daintiness and apparent dependence on our gardens and feeders trigger much stronger and more complex emotions in us. Small wonder, then, that firestorms of controversy often erupt over whether, when, and how to help vagrant hummingbirds that are struggling to cope with brutal northern winters.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with tiny birds in trouble. A hands-off policy, as heartless as it may seem, would be the logical choice if wintering hummingbirds were getting by entirely on natural resources. Once artificial feeders and the people who tend them enter the picture, “letting nature take its course” is no longer an option. It’s not so easy to talk about natural selection when you have to look that hummingbird in the eye each morning as it huddles on its slushy feeder.

Intervention has its own hazards, even when left to licensed experts (as required by federal law). The “Three Rs”— Rescue, Rehabilitate, and Release—may fail if delayed until the bird is too weak to survive the stress of capture or if the specialized care it needs is unavailable. Some wildlife rescue groups are reluctant to take in hummingbirds because they don’t have the expertise or resources to provide proper care.

New problems arise when the rescuers decide to add a fourth “R”: Relocate. It was once common practice to capture vagrant hummingbirds, even those in no obvious distress, and fly or drive them hundreds of miles to warmer climes. As we learned more about hummingbird migration, we realized that in most cases this is a spectacularly bad idea. Like many other birds, hummingbirds learn the particulars of their migration routes by experience. Without that experience, a bird that manages to survive capture and relocation may end up permanently disoriented. Release at or near the original rescue site allows the bird to reorient itself to familiar landmarks in preparation for the next leg of its journey, whether further south or back towards its breeding grounds.

When to release a rescued hummingbird can be just as important as where, especially for early-migrating species such as Rufous and Allen’s. Their northward migration along the Pacific Coast is well underway in January and February, when much of the U.S. is still in the grip of winter. Releasing a hummingbird in the dead of winter isn’t as crazy as it may sound. Some of the tougher species have been observed to hang on through blizzards and ice storms only to move on once the weather cleared.

This Pine Warbler is no better adapted to winter weather than most hummingbirds, but few people would advocate capturing it for relocation or incarceration in a zoo.

This Pine Warbler is no better adapted to winter weather than most hummingbirds, but few people would advocate capturing it for relocation or permanent captivity.

Another misguided approach is to sentence “defective” hummingbirds to life in captivity. Though modern zoo ethics discourage taking wildlife out of the wild, this was exactly what happened to a Green-breasted Mango that found its way to southern Wisconsin in the autumn of 2007. This spectacular bird, only the second member of its mainly tropical species ever seen north of southern Texas, was preemptively rescued ahead of a winter storm and transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Against the advice of numerous hummingbird experts, center officials decided to turn the bird over to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Members of the hummingbird community lobbied for the bird’s release either back in Wisconsin or in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but zoo officials were determined to add this avian celebrity to the collection. The following fall a late-migrating Ruby-throated from Michigan ended up at the same zoo under similar circumstances, again against the advice of experts.

How do we keep hummingbirds out of these predicaments in the first place? One simple change in your feeder routine could make a huge difference. Switching to a sugar-water ratio of 1:3 by early September, when high-risk birds may be passing through, will help your visitors put on fat more efficiently while still providing essential water. The higher sugar content also lowers the solution’s freezing temperature without making it too syrupy for hummingbirds to drink, so it’s the perfect recipe for winter feeding as well. Most hummingbirds take to the sweeter solution right away, but you can gradually increase the sugar content over several days to avoid alienating your regular clientele.

Of course, the ultimate solution to the problem is to stop feeding hummingbirds before winter sets in. If you live north of USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7a  (average minimum winter temperatures 5 to 10̊ F.) and would prefer not to take on the responsibility of hosting a wintering hummingbird, simply take down your feeders within a week after before the first frost or by mid-October, whichever is earlier, even if there are still hummingbirds around. You’ll still be providing a boost to tardy migrants without encouraging any wayward travelers to consider your yard as a possible winter refuge.

* With increasingly erratic weather resulting from global warming, some areas with long, cold winters are experiencing first frosts later in the fall, after most hummingbirds have reached their winter destinations. Taking feeders down while natural resources are still abundant provides a less abrupt transition for any lingering birds and may increase their chances of survival, at least in the short term. [updated 11/30/16]

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