Bird­ing by Bird

Hav­ing hum­ming­birds flit­ting about your yard is a treat, but care­ful what you feed them! You don’t want to kill them with kind­ness

Canadian Wildlife - - FEATURES - By David Bird

Hav­ing hum­ming­birds flit­ting about your yard is a treat, but care­ful what you feed them. You might be killing them with kind­ness

As I sit here at my desk writ­ing this col­umn, I am gaz­ing out the win­dow at the Anna’s and ru­fous hum­ming­birds flit­ting back and forth to our feed­ers. Su­gar wa­ter in and su­gar wa­ter out, right? Well, not so fast: feed­ing hum­mers is def­i­nitely a weighty re­spon­si­bil­ity, and more­over, among the ranks of hum­ming­bird ex­perts, there is con­tro­versy about how and what to feed them.

It all has to do with wa­ter qual­ity. On­line I read com­ments from a woman in Que­bec who boasted that she gets loads of ruby-throated hum­ming­birds com­ing to her feed­ers be­cause she uses dem­iner­al­ized wa­ter in a 3:1 wa­ter to su­gar so­lu­tion. So I checked hum­ming­bird­mar­, an ex­cel­lent source of in­for­ma­tion on feed­ing hum­ming­birds based in Tuc­son, Ari­zona.

It rec­om­mends tap wa­ter, which has been treated for hu­man con­sump­tion by re­mov­ing harm­ful bac­te­ria, and to avoid us­ing dis­tilled, dem­iner­al­ized or pu­ri­fied wa­ter. Any min­er­als present in tap wa­ter in the form of trace el­e­ments can be ben­e­fi­cial to hum­mers (as they are to hu­mans). Boil­ing your tap wa­ter, how­ever, is a good idea be­cause it will re­move po­ten­tially harm­ful bac­te­ria and mi­crobes and also get rid of chlo­rine and flu­o­rides, which are of no use to the birds (and even, possibly, harm­ful). Also, con­sider that a wa­ter soft­ener in your home can add an ex­cess of min­er­als and salts to the wa­ter, in which case you should be us­ing wa­ter that is par­tially or to­tally fil­tered (by a sim­ple pour-through fil­ter like a Brita).

Many folks use hot tap wa­ter to make their su­gar so­lu­tion, but ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, this is risky too. Us­ing hot tap wa­ter for drink­ing or cook­ing is not healthy be­cause it can pick up lead that may be present in your plumb­ing. Lead is just as un­healthy for hum­ming­birds as it is for hu­mans. There is some im­por­tant ad­vice for pre­par­ing a su­gar so­lu­tion for your hum­mers. Un­der no cir­cum­stances should you use ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers, honey or or­ganic, cane, agave or brown su­gar. Sweet­en­ers are con­tro­ver­sial enough in the diet of hu­mans; with the tiny body mass of a hum­ming­bird, any neg­a­tive ef­fects would be mul­ti­plied. Honey is out be­cause it rapidly fer­ments and can be­come a deadly toxin for the birds. The sug­ars men­tioned above gen­er­ally con­tain an over­abun­dance of nat­u­ral el­e­ments like iron and cal­cium that could be ex­ces­sive for hum­ming­birds. Just plain white su­gar is all you need, dis­solved in wa­ter brought to the boil on your stove.

As for the red food colour­ing that is so com­mon in com­mer­cial prod­ucts, avoid it. While the red com­po­nents on the feed­ers can help trig­ger the amaz­ing mem­o­ries of hum­ming­birds to en­able them to find and re­turn to the food source, adding red dye to the so­lu­tion is just a gim­mick by com­mer­cial hum­ming­bird food man­u­fac­tur­ers. It does al­low you to tell when lev­els are down, but it also masks the pres­ence of fer­men­ta­tion, po­ten­tially caus­ing you to leave a feeder up longer than you should. And while no proper sci­en­tific study I know of has shown that red dyes can harm birds, we know defini­tively that some are un­healthy for hu­mans, and many wildlife re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion spe­cial­ists are con­cerned that red dyes might not be eas­ily me­tab­o­lized in hum­ming­bird di­ges­tive sys­tems.

As for the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Québé­coise with lots of hum­ming­birds com­ing to her feed­ers, I would sug­gest that it is the ex­tra-sweet 3:1 wa­ter to su­gar ra­tio that is do­ing the trick, not the fact the wa­ter is dis­tilled. Many web­sites on hum­ming­bird feed­ing rec­om­mend start­ing off at 3:1 to draw them but go­ing with a 4:1 ra­tio once the birds start com­ing in: it will be bet­ter for the lit­tle hum­mers.

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