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Hummingbirds: Frequently Asked Questions

Twelve common questions about hummingbirds, feeding, and more.

  1. How I can estimate how many hummingbirds I feed each day?
  2. How do I keep ants/bees out of the hummingbird feeder?
  3. What is the best ratio of sugar-to-water to use for feeding hummingbirds?
  4. Can I use molasses or honey instead of sugar to make my hummer nectar?
  5. When making hummingbird solution, do I boil the water before or after I add the sugar?
  6. Is the red dye found in premixed hummingbird solutions bad for hummingbirds?
  7. How do I foil a "bully" hummer?
  8. Why does our male hummer fly in a U-shaped pattern?
  9. Do hummingbirds migrate on the back of Canada geese?
  10. Is it true that hummingbirds at my feeder will not migrate if I leave my feeder up in fall?
  11. Does a hummingbird find flowers by smell?
  12. Are there bird houses specially designed for hummingbirds?

1.How I can estimate how many hummingbirds I feed each day?

A: Hummingbird experts Nancy Newfield and Bob and Martha Sargent recently came up with a formula whereby you count the number of hummingbirds you can see at one time at your feeders and multiply this number by six to determine how many birds are visiting your feeder. They arrived at this number based on years of banding and color-marking hummingbirds at feeders.

At our feeders here in SE Ohio, we feed a half-gallon of solution a day, and we have calculated by the above formula that we get 139 hummingbirds during the busy part of the summer. Thus each of our hummingbirds is consuming .46 oz of nectar per day. There are 64 oz in our half gallon of daily solution, so if we divide 64 (the number of ounces consumed) by .46 (the per-hummingbird daily consumption), we get 139 hummers at your feeders. Wow!

Although this is not strict science, it's fun to do the calculations!

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2. How do I keep ants/bees out of the hummingbird feeder?

A: Select a hummingbird feeder with bee guards. These plastic devices allow the longer tongues of hummingbirds to reach the nectar. Bee guards prevent shorter insect tongues from reaching the nectar. Replace any dripping feeders.

You can also do things to discourage ants from getting to your feeders. Laundry detergent applied with a paintbrush will work. Paint whatever surface the ants use to gain access to the feeder (but not the feeder itself). The solution interferes with the ants' chemical navigation. Refresh the application several times the first day. After a few days you won't need it anymore.

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3. What is the best ratio of sugar-to-water to use for feeding hummingbirds?

A:Four parts water to one part sugar (a 4:1 ratio) has been shown to be the closest to the sucrose content of natural flower nectar. Concentrations stronger than this (3:1 ratio and stronger) are readily consumed by hummingbirds, but no scientific evidence exists regarding the potential helpful or harmful effects on them.

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4. Can I use molasses or honey instead of sugar to make my hummer nectar?

A:No. White table sugar is the only human-made sweetener that, when mixed with the right amount of water, closely resembles natural flower nectar. Resist the urge to use other sweeteners, which spoil quickly and may not be good for hummingbirds to consume.

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5. When making hummingbird solution, do I boil the water before or after I add the sugar?

A:If you are using chlorinated municipal water boiling helps to reduce the amount of chlorine present in the water. Hot water dissolves the sugar faster, but cool your solution before giving the birds access to it. If you do boil the water, do it first, before adding the sugar.

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6. Is the red dye found in premixed hummingbird solutions bad for hummingbirds?

A:Though no conclusive scientific evidence exists showing harmful effects of red food dye on hummingbirds, this chemical additive is certainly not a necessary ingredient in hummingbird solution.

Many commercially available brands of hummingbird solution contain red food coloring, which is meant to be attractive both to hummingbirds and to shopping bird watchers. Brightly colored flowers are nature's way of attracting the eye of a foraging hummingbird. So the red solution in feeders is aimed at attracting hummingbirds. Bright red feeder parts (which most hummer feeders have) or a bright red ribbon hung near the feeder can be just as attractive as red-dyed solution. Red dye or food coloring may or may not be harmful to hummingbirds, but it is completely unnecessary.

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7. How do I foil a "bully" hummer?

A:Many hummingbird species defend feeding territories, and assemblages at feeders usually develop hierarchies. The behavior exemplifies natural selection at work, and you should do nothing except enjoy it.

If you're worried about hungry hummingbirds, put up several more feeders near your original one. The bully will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers of other birds and will quit being so territorial.

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8. Why does our male hummingbird fly in a U-shaped pattern?

A: This is the pendulum display flight of a male to a perched female. He zips back and forth and flashes his ruby throat (gorget) at her, hoping to impress her into mating with him. It is common to see this behavior in early summer.

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9. Do hummingbirds migrate on the back of Canada geese?

A: No. This is either a Native American myth or just an old wives' tale. Hummingbirds are excellent, strong-flying migrants. A healthy ruby-throated hummingbird can easily handle the 500-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

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10. Is it true that hummingbirds at my feeder will not migrate if I leave my feeder up in fall?

A: No. This is another in a long line of bird myths. Birds are genetically programmed to migrate when their internal "clocks" tell them to do so. They will depart when the time is right whether your feeders are up or not. Leaving your feeders up in fall and getting them up early in spring may help early or late migrants that are passing through your area.

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11. Does a hummingbird find flowers by smell?

A:Hummingbirds have little or no sense of smell. Most good hummingbird plants have no fragrance, and the hummingbird plants that do have a fragrance [Japanese honeysuckle, for instance] are exotics, usually Asian or African in origin. Therefore it would be incorrect to say that hummingbirds are drawn to any flowers because of the scent.

For more information, check out The Backyard Bird Watcher's Answer Guide and Enjoying Hummingbirds More from our booklet series.

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12. Are there bird houses specially designed for hummingbirds?

A:Hummingbirds do not live in houses like other species (bluebirds, house wrens, etc.). Rather, they collect spider web fibers and lichens to build cup-shaped nests on forked tree branches or a convenient ledge. In the West, black-chinned hummingbirds often nest in close proximity to humans. A product called Hummingbird House provides an inviting construction area for this western hummingbird. It's basically an artificial tree branch.

The best way to attract hummingbirds is to offer them a variety of nectar-producing plants and a few feeders. Since hummingbirds like to eat flying insects, you can provide a reliable food source by keeping your yard free of pesticides.

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