Friday, May 8, 2009

On Feeding Hummingbirds & Orioles

Who doesn't like to feed hummingbirds? Have you ever found a big bird at your humming bird feeders? Orioles also enjoy nectar…though sometimes a less ‘rich’ blend like 5/1 or even 6/1. I drill out some of the holes on the plastic ‘pan’ feeders (which have perches these birds need to feed from the feeder; they don’t ‘hover’) I use for the hummers and let them feed on the same stuff the hummingbirds enjoy. They always do. Course, I also offer orange slices and halves, as well as grape jelly (which also bring in the Tanagers).
Both like meal worms, too; but back to the nectar… I mix a 4/1 concoction of water and plain ol’ granulated sugar to make the nectar I offer all season; the 'season' being 2-3 weeks before anticipated arrival to 2-3 weeks after I see the last bird

Granulated Sugar is made from either of two plants: sugar cane or sugar beets. There is no real difference in the sugar made from these plants; some manufactures don’t even mention which is used. The sucrose in each is the same, but trace elements are different; but have insignificant nutritional effects. Regular sugar = fine granulated sugar = table sugar = standard granulated sugar = extra-fine granulated sugar is the standard table sugar we're all familiar with.

"White" sugar is created in a couple of ways. Beet sugar is produced much the same way as cane sugar. The beets are sliced and soaked with chemicals to form a sugary syrup. Sugar cane is initially pressed and the juice is then mixed with lime to achieve the desired PH-balance and to help settle out impurities.

The liquid, now a dark grayish-green color, is heated to its boiling point, and chemicals are added to remove impurities. Sulphur dioxide is introduced to the cane juice before evaporation. It effectively bleaches the mixture. Next, the juice is placed in huge tanks to evaporate, leaving a thick syrup. This syrup is heated to remove more and more water until crystals form. These crystals must be separated from the syrup, so they are put into a centrifuge machine which spins it around rapidly.

The sugar which is left inside the machine's cylinders is called raw sugar. In this form, the sugar has uses to some manufacturers, but to make it suitable for food, it must go to a refinery. There, it is dissolved, treated with chemicals, filtered, crystallized once more, and allowed to solidify, this time into pure white sugar.

This mixture is then run through a centrifuge again to take away the outer coating of the raw sugar crystals. Phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide are then added to the juice which then combine and absorb or trap impurities. The resulting syrup is then filtered through a bed of activated carbon to remove molasses and then crystallized a number of times under vacuum. It is then further dried to produce white refined sugar like we buy in the store. (Ugg, who knew? How can they call white, granulated sugar ‘pure’? Sheessh! …there are benefits to the research I do)

Turbinado sugar, also known as ‘turbinated sugar’, is made from sugar cane extract. It is produced by crushing freshly cut sugar cane; the juice obtained is evaporated by heat, then crystallized. The crystals are spun in a centrifuge, or turbine (thus the name), to remove excess moisture, resulting in the characteristic large, light brown crystals. Turbinado sugar differs from refined white sugar in that it is obtained or crystallized from the initial pressing of sugar cane. Because the turbinado sugar is less refined than white sugar, it is often called ‘Raw Sugar’. Turbinado and demerara sugars are the same and often sold as organic products. . It also is considered by some to be “healthier” since it receives less processing than does white sugar. Unlike granulated sugar, turbinado sugar tends to hold more moisture, and is lower in calories...and should NOT be used for hummingbird nectar (see below.)

Brown sugar is refined white sugar with a molasses-syrup mixed in and then dried again.

About making nectar to feed birds; do not use commercially prepared liquids or mixes. They contain preservatives that are even more harmful to birds than to humans (it’s a size thing), as well as various dyes which have also been proven harmful as well. Let the feeder itself provide the color (red attracts hummingbirds (and orioles, to), but yellow is favored by bees and wasps. I always remove the yellow ‘flowers’ when I find ‘em on feeders.

Do not use brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, raw sugar, or turbinado sugar to make your nectar. Confectioner’s sugar contains corn starch that can cause the syrup to ferment quickly. Brown sugar and raw sugars contain iron and can prove deadly to hummingbirds over a period of time.

Do not use artificial sugar if only because it contains absolutely no nutritional value (not to mention what it does contain).

Do not use honey to prepare your mixture. Honey will ferment more quickly and also promotes the growth of fungus and other organisms that attack the digestive system of the small birds.

Regardless of what you read, boil a mixture of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water (1 cup sugar + 4 cups water (thanks Anon for correcting my typo)) for two minutes to retard fermentation. Keep the lid on the pot to reduce evaporation. Do not microwave the mixture as this heating method is hotter than water’s boiling point and causes a breakdown in the sugar molecule. Cool and refrigerate what is not immediately used. Warm temperatures and direct sunlight cause fermentation and bacterial growth within the sugar-water; therefore it is critical that feeders be emptied and cleaned every two to four days. (Yet another reason to begin the season only filling feeders partially full; you’ll waste less.)

Oh, another goodie I learned from the hummingbird book Bosque Bill suggested (by Dan True; see Bill’s Place): Place pieces of fruit that attract fruit flies and gnats near a feeder (bananas, peaches, apricots, etc). I’ve watched hummers hawking gnats swarming over grass and understand they eat tiny spiders and other bugs deep within evergreens; but the fruit attracts the tiny bugs to eye-level, where you can watch …and the hummers will thank you for the extra protein!

One last consideration: the 4/1 ratio is sort of a generalization. Plants naturally contain higher and lower ratios of sugar to water; depending on weather, water, etc. When birds first arrive during migration, they might enjoy a higher level of sugar to water; it will certainly keep the birds coming back when they’re nearly starving. However, keep in mind that nectar is where the birds get water, so too rich a mixture will do more harm than good as the weather gets warmer and everything needs to drink more water. There have been some studies regarding whether or not too rich a blend damages birds’ livers, too. Perhaps a slightly richer ratio very early in the season would be beneficial, but certainly not for the long run; cut back to 4-to-1 before summer gets rolling. That said, by and large a bird knows what it needs. Rich food makes for fewer visits to feeders; a more natural concoction will allow them the time to rest and/or feed on other foods.

Other Sources:

Hummingbird photos from Wikipedia; Orioles are mine


Bosque Bill said...

Another well researched article. Thanks (and thanks for the plug.)

I've got enough hummers now to completely fill the containers... daily.

Unfortunately, I cannot do your oriole trick or the House Finches would drink me dry.

Beverly said...

You're welcome, Bill. I really do appreciate your suggestion on the hummingbird book!

Your other site is part of what prompted me...the discussion on hummers which included questions about sugars. Also, a neighbor just put up a feeder with bright red nectar in it...telling me he'd read the store bought stuff has more nutrients than plain ol' sugar...he read it on the package!

There outta be a law!

Thanks Bill...good to see you again. Funny though, all my finches ignore the nectar feeders...and I've never read of such behavior. Just how close are you to Roswell again? ;)

dAwN said...

Great information and explanation of the different types of sugar.
i was doing the 4 to 1 ratio but i wasnt heating the mixture..
I will do that the next time I make it..thanks.

Beverly said...

Dawn, good to 'see' you again!

Yeah, the sugar ferments quick enough as it is...gently boiling for two minutes (with the lid on)apparently slows things down.

Odd that folks still say 'boiling isn't necessary'; perhaps they're talking about just disolving the sugar in the water... I'd rather be a bit safer and boil, too.

Bosque Bill said...

My philosophy is that boiling the mixture is only necessary if it sits in the feeder two or more days. If your birds are slurping it down more quickly, the mixture does not have time to ferment or grow mold.

I forget where I first read this, but have been doing this for years and have detected no problems.

You do whatever you think is best for you.

Beverly said...

Well, you make a good point!

Yesterday I read a receipe for nectar that didn't mention boiling or how often to change it out...nor how long the mixture is good in the hot sun or the heat of the day.

I hang as many as eight, somewhat large-capacity (16-48 oz), feeders but even with as many as 50 hummers and a handfull of orioles visiting daily, feeders don't go empty for 3-4 days. You must have more birds than I do...certainly right now it sounds like you do.

I'm with you though, if it's gone in just a day or two; boiling is probably not necessary.

Thanks, Bill!

Bosque Bill said...

It should go without saying, but I'll say it... if one uses the non-boil method, be sure to keep the feeders scrupulously clean.

This is where the bleach method, I feel, is better, as it will kill any mold or bacteria, whereas soap only acts as a surfactant to (hopefully) lift off any bad stuff.

The green argument for not using anti-bacterial products, such as hand or liquid soap, will be left for another discussion.

(I'm getting pretty damn tired of blogger requiring me to log in multiple times in a morning. Enough to discourage one from bothering. This never used to happen!)

Anonymous said...

do you mean 1 cup sugar to 4 cups water (not 1/4 cup sugar to 4 cups water)?

Beverly said...

Sheeshhhhhhh… of course that’s what I meant! One of these days, I’ll slow down a bit when multi-tasking and perhaps actually get what I mean on paper.

Thank you so much for that…whoever you are! While math is NOT my forte, I really did know better than that; I was busy changing up the recipe to an amount that made enough to bother with…and ended up leaving the typo. I’m so glad you caught that… !!!


½ cup sugar to 1 cup water
1 cup sugar to 4 cups (one quart) water
4 cups sugar to 16 cups (four quarts) water

I make the stuff in larger it sure doesn't last long at the height of summer-time!

Thanks again...

Linda said...

About 25 years ago, I read an article by an Ornithologist (I have no idea what his name is now; it's been so long) who did a 10-year study of hummingbirds being fed homemade nectar made from ordinary GRANULATED sugar. He attached radio transmitters to them, and towards the end of the season, he would trace the radio transmissions. He found a surprisingly large amount of them dead. Those were the primary ones that he actually caught up with. He followed up with a necropsy, and discovered huge crystallized formations in their aesophagus, and concluded they had either suffocated or starved to death. Remember the experiment we did in school with a nail, a piece of string and a beaker of sugar water? The string QUICKLY became caked with a large buildup of sugar crystals. His observations and conclusions over the 10-year study was to make your own sugar water, go to aNY store that sells wine-making supplies and buy the finer corn sugar, which NEVER breaks down into crystal form.

Have you ever read this study? It has always made perfect sense to me!