SUGAR! One part sugar to four parts water is the norm. That’s the amount of sugar found in most of the flowers on which they feed. During the spring, when the females spend a lot of time nesting, I make the food a little more concentrated so they can get more sugar with fewer visits. You should also provide the higher concentration if you live in one of those areas where the birds are bulking up for the long migration. You can make it as concentrated as one cup of sugar to three cups of water. If you’re putting out feeders for the first time, use the higher concentration. That will help attract hummers to your feeders (and away from your neighbors!) Once the birds have found you, you can cut back.
Why not keep the concentration higher all of the time? Three reasons come to mind. One, the food will spoil faster and that nasty black mold will grow more quickly. Black mold is dangerous to the birds. If a bird becomes infected, it’s tongue can swell and it can starve to death. Two, a more concentrated solution is much more likely to attract bees. I so dislike watching my hummers fighting for port access with the local bees. Although I’ve never seen one get stung, I always worry! Three, it’s more expensive! I already go through 30 pounds of sugar a week.
There is a big debate about using cane sugar vs. beet sugar. Cane sugar is usually marked “Pure Cane Sugar” (Dominos, C&H, First Street) or “granulated sugar” (most regular store brands.) If it is not specifically market “cane sugar” it is beet sugar. Some people swear that their hummingbirds can tell the difference. Mine cannot. I usually buy my sugar either at Costco (C&H) or Smart & Final (First Street.) But if I run out I grab some “granulated sugar” (beet) from the local grocery store. I get just as many hummingbirds either way. Now that the webcam is set up on the deck, I’m planning to put feeders with both beet and cane sugar side by side and we can see what happens. In any case, do not use “organic” sugar, turbinado sugar, brown sugar, honey or artificial sweeteners, as they are harmful to the birds.
Some people don’t want to use beet sugar because it’s made with GMO beets. However, a sugar molecule is a sugar molecule; and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the genetic change made to the seed is not expressed in the actual sugar made from the beets. They say beet sugar is fine, and if it’s good enough for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it’s good enough for me! But you can do what you want.
Lastly, lets talk about red dye. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, and that’s why hummingbird feeders are usually made out of red plastic. The hummers can see the red plastic just fine, so the food itself does not have to be red. The dye used in this country is Red Dye #40, which is actually derived from coal tar. It is interesting to note that even though approved by the FDA for use in our food, the dye has been banned in the UK, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.
There are no specific studies done on hummingbirds, but there is anecdotal evidence (unpublished) that it may cause bill and liver tumors. Birds in rehab have been shown to excrete red. Published studies in rats fed Red Dye #40 showed DNA damage to cells in the colon, and this study exposed the rats to low doses. Imagine the dose ingested by a hummingbird that must drink its body weight in nectar daily!
If you still insist on putting red dye in your hummingbird food, the next time you pour yourself a nice glass of water on a hot day, shoot some red dye in it and see if that makes it better for you. Personally, I’m eyeing that Red Velvet Cake with suspicion.
Until next time,
Studio City, California