To Feed Or Not To Feed?

Should you hang hummingbird feeders? The answer is complicated, but one thing’s certain: You can’t go wrong with native plants.
Image of hummingbird sipping from coral honeysuckle
Above: Native honeysuckles, like this coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), often bloom prolifically and for months at a time. Featured image, top: Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is another natural hummingbird feeder. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Hummingbirds are top contenders for many avian superlatives: Bee hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world, as diminutive as their insect namesake. In proportion to their body sizes, rufous hummingbirds make one of the longest migrations and Anna’s hummingbirds can dive faster than space shuttles re-entering the atmosphere.

“They’re like the little Chihuahuas of the bird world,” says Christine Barton, director of operations at the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona, California, an affiliate of the Humane Society of the United States. “They think they’re huge. They think they can take on the world.”

And not without reason: These intelligent acrobats fly backward, hover in mid-air, remember exact locations of flowers and feeders, chase away hawks and devour thousands of insects (including mosquitoes) daily.

The nagging question for wildlife lovers—Are feeders helping or harming hummingbirds?—has few clear answers. But we do know this: Killing them with kindness (or at least good intentions) is all too common.

For all that we know about their fast-paced lifestyles, much remains to be discovered. Climate change and habitat loss may be contributing to their decline, but research is scant. And the nagging question for wildlife lovers—Are feeders helping or harming hummingbirds?—has few clear answers. But we do know this: Killing them with kindness (or at least good intentions) is all too common, due to contaminated feeders, inappropriate ingredients such as honey or brown sugar, and the belief that hummingbirds in distress can be nursed back to health on sugar water alone—human errors described repeatedly in Terry Masear’s delightful and heartbreaking book Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood.

Image of hummingbird on trumpet creeper
Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) is irresistible to hummingbirds. (Photo by David Lofink)

To casual observers, the birds’ eagerness at feeders obscures a critical dietary need: protein-rich insects and spiders. Feeders in landscapes with fewer insects are akin to fast-food drive-thrus doling out 32-ounce sodas and nothing else—a quick hit of energy but little substance. Before adding these artificial food sources, consider creating habitat, advises veterinarian Lisa Tell, director of the UC Davis Hummingbird Health and Conservation Program. “Have you first tried things like planting natural food sources that, by their nature, are already probably healthier for the birds?” she asks. A recent study by Tell and her colleagues found that the composition of microbial communities in sugar water is different from that of floral nectar, with unknown consequences for hummingbirds’ gastrointestinal health. Also, sugar water can go stale, but flowers regularly replenish nectar, and native plants support an abundance of insect life. And while feeders can increase disease transmission by enticing birds into close quarters in high numbers, vegetation isn’t likely to be such a hotbed for pathogens.

In her garden, Barton traded feeders for plants to reduce territorial behaviors. Now the birds dine more peacefully among salvias, penstemons, monkeyflowers and other native species. In the process, they’re also doing plants a favor; about 7,000 species from Alaska to Patagonia rely on hummingbirds for pollination. In one Costa Rica study, feeders drew hummingbirds away from their normal flower-visiting activities, a phenomenon that could negatively affect other wildlife dependent on plants for berries, seeds and nesting sites.

image of hummingbird at feeder
Feeders may help hummingbirds in the absence of enough habitat to support their needs. (Photo by Kathy Milani)

What does all this mean for hummingbird lovers? As with many wildlife-related issues, we must navigate between the world as it is and the world as it should be. If you’re already offering sugar water, “the last thing we want people to do is run out and take their feeders down,” says Tell, especially in environmentally degraded areas where hummingbirds are habituated. To do the most good and the least harm, offer plants, avoid pesticides (which have been found to accumulate in the bodies of hummingbirds), avoid trimming trees and bushes during nesting season, and follow these tips if using feeders: Mix one part white table sugar to four parts water. Place feeders far from windows to prevent bird strikes. Clean weekly and more often when temperatures rise. A good guideline, says Tell: “If you wouldn’t drink it, then it’s not great to offer to them.”

Image of hummingbird nest
Hummingbird nests are as small as a thimble or walnut and highly camouflaged with soft plant fibers, lichen and spider silk. Avoid pruning and trimming trees and shrubs during nesting season, as you might inadvertently destroy the homes of these growing families. Learn more about careful tree trimming in this article, “Untimely Evictions.” (Photo by Mick Thompson)

A version of this article appeared in the spring 2019 issue of All Animals magazine.

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