Hummingbird Feeders: Poor Nutrition for the Birds?

Today, I decided I wanted to get a hummingbird feeder, but a thought ocurred to me: maybe I’d actually be harming them a little.

The recipe that I’ve always heard is one part ordinary white sugar to four parts water. But refined sugar can’t be good for them, can it? I mean, they must be getting some other vitamins nutrients from the nectar they drink that would be absent from refined sugar. So, am I feeding them “junk food?”

I’ve always heard that birds become somewhat dependant on feeders: if food is always freely available in one location, why spend time searching for other sources? The difference is that in my regular bird feeder, there’s a mix of various seeds, very close if not the same as they’d be eating in the “wild.” My squirrel feeder is the same: filled with nuts and grains, much like the squirrels’ usual diet. However, hummingbirds don’t usually eat Domino Brand White Sugar-water.

I know the hummingbirds are unlikely to suffer untimely death over from drinking my unnatural concoction, but something about the idea of making them dependant on an unhealthy food source bothers me. Is it the equivellent of bribing them with “candy” to hang out in my yard so I can enjoy watching them?

So, what’s the dope? Does nectar vary in any significant way from plain old sugar-water? If so, do birds rely heavily or exclusvively on a constant food source to the extent that it would keep them from getting some of things they need in their diet? Am I a fruicake for letting this concern me?

Nix panicus. See here for more details, but you aren’t hurting the little buzzbombs.

For a real treat, make your sugarwater with caffeinated water!! :eek:

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using plain white refined sugar in your hummingbird feeder. For wild, free-flying hummingbirds, in fact, it’s really the best thing you can give them. It’s nice and pure, without contaminants that can harm them.

Hummingbirds get most of their protein, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients by catching small insects and spiders. Although some nectars contain amino acids, most contain negligible nutrients besides sugars. Lots of flower nectars contain sucrose, while some may contain glucose and/or fructose instead of, or in combination with sucrose. From a hummingbird’s point of view these aren’t that different nutritionally.

Some people put brown sugar or honey in the feeders on the theory that these are somehow more “healthy.” Actually they contain substances that can be bad for the birds.

Hummingbirds aren’t humans. They are adapted to live on a high-sugar diet, and sucrose will do them no harm.

Colibri, (Ph.D. in hummingbird ecology)

Is it true that hummingbirds expend as much as 12,000 calories per day? That’s an awful lot of sugar water, isn’t it?

No that’s has to be utter bullshit.

Here is another quote

The above quote is apparently from Smithsonian Magazine

There’s an obvious confusion there between “large calories,” or kilocalories (Kcal), which are what we commonly mean when we refer to calories, and “small calories,” which are the actual units originally called calories. What they mean is 12 Kcal.

From here

From Merriam-Webster:

So that’s the equivalent of about one to two teaspoons of artificial nectar (at 4 parts water to one part sugar, and 15 calaries per teaspoon of sugar). Does that seem like enough to fly all day long?

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird only weighs about 3 grams, or about 1/10th of an ounce. Sucrose has about 3.75 calories per gram (usually rounded to 4). So if they consume 3 to 7 (or maybe 12) calories per day, that means they would be consuming anywhere from 30-100% of their body weight per day in sugar alone. (Adding in the water means they may be consuming 150-500% of their body weight in nectar per day.) Imagine drinking 100 1-liter bottles of coke a day.

Thank you for such a great answer, Colibri!

Out of curiosity if a hummingbird attacks you can it hurt you with its beak?

YES. I saw a hummingbird poke a robin in the butt. The robin took off like, well, like he’d been poked in the butt by a hummingbird.

Ummm. A qualification, if you don’t mind. I read this recently, I believe it was in a magazine. Odds are it was either Newsweek or Scientific American, but one important issue was cleanliness. And that’s where we enter my arena of knowledge. :slight_smile: You see, sugar water is every bit as attractive to bacteria and the spores of various eukaryotes (molds, yeasts and other one-celled critters) as it is to hummingbirds - and insects, especially bees, wasps and ants. silenus’s site says that hummingbirds will reject “spoiled” nectar, but I doubt whether they are able to detect lower levels of contamination that may still be sufficient to cause illness. Here’s a

from the link provided by silenus. (emphasis added) IOW, don’t start doing it if you’re not going to invest the effort to do it right! I recall an article that I read a year or two ago (probably in Discover magazine) in which researchers discovered that hummingbirds carry a very complex map of feeding locations - especially those where a person has maintained syrup feeding stations - and they will come back year after year, even after a site has ceased to provide food.

This site has a huge quantity of important information and “how-tos” for catering to those winged jewels; lots of explanations and warnings that I, for one, would certainly obey if I were to live where a hummingbird feeder was a practical thing. I can’t emphasize too strongly how important it is to follow their guidelines on cleanliness.

For more important information, go to the homepage of the above site, at It has an important legal warning there.

Wow, I had no idea . . . I’m really glad I posted before I bought a feeder. I may have ended up doing them more harm than good.

It looks like they may already be gone from this area, according to the migration information, so if I decide to feed the birds, I’ll have to start in the spring.

Thanks, guys, for all of the great information.

I might mention that when I’ve kept hummingbirds in captivity, I have added a protein supplement to the sugar solution, because in those circumstances the birds may not be able to catch enough insects. (Although I would also provide fruit flies in the cage when possible). As silenius’s link mentions, however, such solutions go bad very rapidly.

I have seen websites that warned people against using artificial sweetners like Nutrasweet and saccharin in their hummingbird feeders. :smack:

pparently enough people have thought this might be a good idea that they need to warn against it.
I’m off to clean and refill my hummingbird feeder.

I have seen websites that warned people against using artificial sweetners like Nutrasweet and saccharin in their hummingbird feeders. :smack:

Apparently enough people have thought this might be a good idea that they need to warn against it.
I’m off to clean and refill my hummingbird feeder.

I have never had one actually strike me. Since most of them weigh only about as much as a dime, and they fly maybe 25 mph - maybe a bit more in a power dive (their speed seems greater because they are so small) they wouldn’t have much impact on a human. It would probably sting about as much as a large toothpick shot from a rubber band.

They generally avoid actually striking much larger animals, although they will physically hit other hummingbirds and occasionally larger birds.

I once saw a documentary which claimed that hummingbirds are the “meanest” birds in the animal kingdom. It stated that they have no social behavior and that if hummingbirds were the size of sparrows, people wouldn’t be able to leave their houses.

I’m sure this has to be an exaggeration, but is the reputation for being “mean” deserved?

Males in particular of many species are extremely aggressive around food sources. They will chase basically anything that they perceive to be competing with them. They will defend far more food then they actually need, as in the case of a hummingbird feeder which essentially represents an infinite food source. This is probably because in nature most flowers are a relatively unpredictable food source over time, so they defend them indiscriminately just to be on the safe side. This generalized agression can misfire and be directed at non-competitors; I have seen hummers attack and chase macaws and large lizards. Often, hummingbirds don’t seem to have an “off” switch as far as aggressiveness is concerned.

However, not all species are territorial. Especially in the tropics, some kinds are non-aggressive, and use dispersed flowers in the forest; or small flowers that are not of much interest to the aggressive species; or else sneak into the territories of other species to steal nectar. My thesis was on six species that showed various kinds of behavior in this regard.