Cottage Q&A: Feeding hummingbirds

Hummingbirds at a feeder By SnapshotMD/Shutterstock

I’m regularly feeding hummingbirds at my cottage with a sugar-water solution. I am wondering if it is junk food for them. Is it better for them to get the natural nutrients from flower nectars?—Casey Nolis, via email

Well, adding native plants to your cottage property is always a win, and hummingbirds do love them some brightly coloured blooms. Examples include trumpet vines, scarlet runner beans, and lilies.

But, “we don’t know that nectar is healthier than sugar water,” says Cindy Cartwright of Hummingbirds Canada. Assuming that you’re filling these feeders with the appropriate one part sugar, four parts water mixture, and using plain white table sugar (not, say, brown sugar, raw sugar, molasses, or Splenda), you’re providing a useful food source. “Table sugar is very, very close to the type of sugar that the hummingbirds get from flowers,” says Cartwright. You’re substituting an apple with another kind of apple, not a bag of gummy bears. And research shows that when feeders and flowers are together on offer, the birds use both with equal frequency. (They also eat insects, for protein.) 

Keep hummingbirds happy with this DIY feeder.

Of course, feeders aren’t good if you don’t clean them or replace leftover food, about every five to seven days in the spring and more frequently—every two to three days—as it gets hotter. If the liquid looks milky, or if you see black mould around the feeder ports, discard the sugar water, clean the feeder with a bleach-water mixture, rinse thoroughly, and add fresh food.

How to attract and photograph hummingbirds.

Don’t add red food colouring to your water. And don’t buy any red, ready-mixed hummingbird food. “There is no research that says that red food colouring is safe for hummingbirds,” says Cartwright. Plus, it’s not necessary—the birds will be attracted to the feeder regardless—and it’s expensive. “I have no idea why anyone would pay for those premixed products in the first place,” says Cartwright. “Sugar only costs a few bucks a bag.” 

This article was originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of Cottage Life.

Got a question for Cottage Life’s Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.


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