Backyard Birds: Winter food for the smallest of our feathered friends

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Juvenile female Anna's Hummingbird.
Photo by Patty Hale, November 2011

By Patty Hale

When the weather outside is frightful, smart folks bundle up. The even smarter ones head inside where it is warm and dry. While you are nice and toasty, there are many who must remain out in the weather singing the refrain, “Baby, its cold outside.”

The Anna’s Hummingbird which spends the winter in our area may need to depend on humans for its survival during this time of year. Please remember to keep fresh nectar in feeders. You can bring them in overnight if the temperatures remain below freezing, but just be sure to remember to get them back outside before dawn.

It is a good idea to have a couple of extra feeders on hand to rotate, so that there is always nectar available. When it is really cold, make sure there are two full liquid feeders, just in case.

If you have hummers at your feeders now, please do not stop feeding them. These little guys can not afford the extra energy expense looking for other food sources. They will perish in the process.

 “Female Anna’s Hummingbird” in winter.
Photo by Patty Hale, December 2008

The following information from should help you in your efforts.

Classic Hummingbird Nectar Recipe
  • Combine one part white sugar and four parts water.
  • Heat the solution for 1-2 minutes to help the sugar dissolve and slow fermentation.
  • Allow the solution to cool completely before filling feeders.

Nectar Recipe Tips

Do not use honey, brown sugar, molasses or artificial sugar substitutes for any hummingbird nectar recipe. Honey and molasses (brown sugar contains molasses products) are too heavy for hummingbirds to digest efficiently and can ferment more quickly, creating a mold that is fatal to hummingbirds. Sugar substitutes do not have the caloric energy that hummingbirds need for energy.

While boiling will help slow the fermentation of the nectar initially, the nectar in hummingbird feeders is contaminated as soon as it is sipped by a bird. Therefore, it is not necessary to boil the nectar once the sugar has been dissolved.

The ratio of sugar and water can be slightly adjusted, but a solution that is too sweet will be difficult for the birds to digest and one that does not contain enough sugar will not be suitable to attract hummingbirds. The 4:1 water to sugar ratio most closely approximates the sucrose levels in natural nectar.

Hummingbird nectar must be completely cool before filling feeders. Hot nectar can warp or crack both glass and plastic hummingbird feeders and warm nectar will ferment more quickly.

Unused hummingbird nectar can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week. When making your own nectar, adjust the recipe quantity to only make enough for one week to eliminate waste.

Clean hummingbird feeders at least once a week and refill them with fresh nectar.

To Dye or Not to Dye
The use of red dye in hummingbird nectar recipes is a controversial issue. In the 1970’s some red dyes were found to be toxic. Today, red dyes found in food coloring and commercial hummingbird nectar are safe for both human and animal consumption, but the color is not necessary to attract the birds.

Many hummingbird feeders have red bases, feeding ports or other accents that will attract the birds without risking the use of unessential dyes. If you want to use red to attract more hummingbirds to your feeders, consider planting red flowers nearby to help catch the birds’ attention.


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