The tiniest birds in North America, hummingbirds are a favorite among birders. During breeding and migration, people provide a much-needed snack for these tiny powerhouses. With as many as 53 beats of the wing per second, hummingbirds must eat about twice their weight each day. Sugar water mimics naturally occurring nectar, and is a valuable food source for these little birds.
Frequency of Eating
Because of their fast metabolisms, hummingbirds need to eat frequently to have energy to fly and survive. On the other hand, hummingbirds generally have to fly in order to eat, which uses a lot of energy. It’s a never-ending cycle, and hummingbirds are always in danger of starvation. For this reason, hummingbirds eat between five and 14 meals per hour, depending on the caloric content of the food source.
Nectar is found in flowers, the primary source of food for hummingbirds (insects are also part of their diet). Nectar is sugar water, made up of sucrose and either fructose or glucose. Nectar also has some protein and salt. The ratio of sugar to water varies from flower to flower. The nectar from some flowers frequented by hummingbirds contains as few as 10 calories, while others contain as much as 82 calories.
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Man-made sugar solutions can also vary in their richness, mimicking flower nectar. In order to “compete” with flowers, it might be best to provide fairly high ratios. A ratio of equal sugar and water (1:1) yields an approximately 60 calorie meal. Combining one part sugar with four parts water (1:4) is about 10 calories. Both will work to attract and maintain hummingbirds at your feeder, as will any amount in between. Keep in mind that the lower the ratio, the more often a hummingbird will visit.
Making the Solution
Making a sugar-water solution is simple. Just dissolve sugar in water in the desired proportion. Some people recommend boiling the water to kill any organisms, while others say that the birds bring organisms to the feeder themselves so there’s no need to boil. If you choose to boil the solution, make sure it is completely cooled before adding it to the feeder.
Hummingbirds are very attracted to the color red. Most commercial feeders have red on them, and some commercial nectar mixes have red dye included. Though red will attract hummingbirds, there is no need for the sugar-water solution to be red. There is some concern that red dye may harm the birds, but mostly it’s just not necessary. Just be sure there is red on the feeder, even if you just tie a red ribbon to it.
Cleaning and Changing
Heat and bacteria can cause the sugar-water solution to ferment and become cloudy. If you live in a warm climate, clean the feeder and put in new sugar-water frequently. Even if you live in a cooler climate, check the feeder often for signs of bacterial or mold growth.