Events, Summer 2022

This year’s late summer hummingbird season is going to be packed with activities, both in-person and virtual.  Join me if you can!


Fall Befuddlers: Broad-tailed, Rufous/Allen’s, and Calliope

“Female-plumaged” Broad-tailed, Rufous/Allen’s, and Calliope hummingbirds are often confused with one another during fall migration. Image © 2020 by Sheri L. Williamson. All rights reserved.

In fall migration, the similar plumages of juvenile female Rufous and Allen’s hummingbirds, female and juvenile male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and female and juvenile male Calliope Hummingbirds cause a lot of confusion, especially when they stray east of their usual migration routes.

Shape is one of the first clues for quickly separating these doppelgangers. Broad-taileds are long and relatively slim, with proportionally smaller heads, longer, often slightly decurved bills, longer wings and tails, and relatively broad primaries except for the outer two (P9-10). Rufous and Allen’s are relatively compact, big-headed, and barrel-chested with tapered outer primaries that give the folded wing a scythe-like shape. Calliopes have even bigger heads, plus shorter bills, shorter tails, and broad, curved outer primaries distinctly different from either Broad-tailed or Rufous/Allen’s. 

On the fanned tail, the amount and distribution of rufous coloration is important but variable within as well as between species. In juvenile female Rufous/Allen’s, R2 has rufous across the entire base or on both the inner and outer vanes divided by a stripe of green. In Broad-tailed, R2 is predominantly bright green with a partial border of rufous along the edge of the outer vane and variable black at the tip. The stubby tails of Calliopes are predominantly dull green, black, and white, with significantly less rufous in the outer four pairs of tail feathers than either Rufous/Allen’s or Broad-tailed (typically most conspicuous on the basal edges of R2-4 in juvenile males and adult females). The number of outer tail feathers with white tips is often helpful in distinguishing juvenile females (typically R2-5) from adult females and juvenile males (typically R3-5), but it’s not helpful in separating species.

There are other, more subtle clues to separating these often confusing species, but shape and tail pattern will resolve the vast majority of ID dilemmas.

The illustration above is styled after the all-new plates in the forthcoming successor to A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America in the Peterson Field Guide Series. The new guide will be published by Princeton University Press, tentatively scheduled for publication in early 2025.

American Birding Podcast interview

Black-chinned x Annas hybrid

This Black-chinned × Anna’s hybrid led to the discovery of a previously unrecognized field mark unique to Anna’s Hummingbird.

In the latest American Birding Podcast from the American Birding Association, Nate Swick and I chat about how I got into hummingbirds, how hummingbirds can serve as a gateway to the bigger world of birding, nature, and conservation, how friends and family of late birding icon Mary Jo Ballator plus some generous donors banded together to save her beloved private sanctuary, and how the peculiar voice of a hybrid hummingbird led to the discovery of a previously unrecognized field mark unique to Anna’s Hummingbird. Use the embedded player below to listen to the full podcast, or visit the American Birding Podcast page.

Feeding Hummingbirds: The Basics

A young Calliope Hummingbird on its first southbound migration refuels on plain sugar water.

With hummingbirds returning to their northern homes from their wintering grounds, it’s the perfect time for a short refresher course in the best (and worst) practices for feeding them. I’m assuming here that you already have a feeder you’re happy with, one that is easy to clean and refill and doesn’t attract bees. To fill it with a safe and effective substitute for flower nectar, you’ll need the following ingredients:

1. White sugar.

  • Sucrose, a.k.a. white table sugar, is a natural sugar that is the most abundant sugar in both the sap of plants and the nectars of hummingbird-pollinated flowers (1). We get our sucrose by squeezing sugar cane and sugar beets, and hummingbirds get theirs by drinking nectar, sap, and properly made feeder solutions. It does not give them diabetes. It will not rot their teeth.
  • Pure cane sugar is often recommended based on reports that the birds prefer it over pure beet or blended sugar (which is usually labeled simply as “sugar”). As yet there’s no hard evidence to support this.
  • If ordinary granulated sugar doesn’t dissolve quickly enough for you, and you don’t mind trading cost for convenience, buy superfine baker’s or caster sugar instead (but not powdered sugar, which contains anti-caking agents).

2. Good-quality water.

  • If you don’t personally drink water straight out of your home tap for any reason (too many minerals, funky taste or smell, tested positive for pollutants, etc.), don’t make your hummingbird guests drink it, either. If it’s cloudy or discolored by iron, you definitely shouldn’t use it to make feeder solution (see the second bullet point under the “don’ts” below).
  • Researchers have determined that hummingbirds’ kidneys are incredibly good at getting rid of excess water with minimal loss of electrolyte salts (2), which clears the way for feeder solutions made with water purified by reverse osmosis or distillation. Water softened by ion exchange is high in sodium, and overloading the birds on sodium may not be a good idea.

Sugar. Water. That’s all you need. Really.

The Basic Recipe: 1 part sugar + 4 parts water

Sugar water recipe

Filling your feeders with one part white granulated sugar dissolved in three to six parts good-quality water is a safe, effective way to attract hummingbirds. Leftover sugar water will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Though opinions about ratios of sugar to water vary slightly within the hummingbird community, most hummingbird experts endorse this recipe. Good old 1:4 (or 4:1) has proven itself safe and effective over more than four decades of use, it’s well within the range of sugar concentrations found in the nectar of hummingbird-pollinated flowers (1), and, like a one-size-fits-most garment, it leaves enough “wiggle room” to accommodate some challenging environmental conditions without short-changing the birds on either energy or water. Slightly stronger solutions (1:3) are helpful for migrating and wintering hummingbirds, and slightly weaker (up to 1:6) keeps them hydrated and cool in extreme summer heat, but all the average hummingbird host needs to remember is 1 part white sugar + 4 parts clean water.

Briefly boiling the solution on the stove top or in the microwave dissolves the sugar quickly and may delay spoilage by killing spores of yeasts, molds, bacteria, etc. in the sugar and/or water, but it isn’t strictly necessary. Sugar water spoils quickly no matter what you do, so clean and refill your feeders every three days in cool, mild weather and daily in very hot, windy, and/or rainy weather. My favorite cleaning method is to spray hydrogen peroxide on all feeder surfaces, let it soak for a couple of minutes, then brush and rinse to remove organic debris.

“Alternative” ingredients that don’t belong in hummingbird feeder solutions:

  • Fruit juice concentrates available from health food stores and online retailers are a safer alternative to artificial dyes.

    Fruit juice concentrates available from health food stores and online retailers are a safer alternative to artificial dyes. Here homemade sugar water has been colored with a teaspoon of tart cherry concentrate.

    Artificial coloring. The petroleum-based dyes used in commercial food coloring and most “instant nectar” products are like nothing the birds would ever encounter in nature. These dyes may not be dangerous at human consumption levels, but hummingbirds can drink two to five times their weight in liquid in a day. Medical research has linked large dosages of these dyes to a number of serious health problems. Backyard comparisons also suggest that the birds don’t like the way these dyes taste. If colorless sugar water just doesn’t look right to you, tint it with a teaspoon of natural tart cherry or raspberry juice concentrate (available online and from health food stores) and clean your feeders more often.

  • Brown, beige, or off-white sugar. The color derives in part from iron, for which nectar-feeding birds have a very low tolerance (4,5). Even a little extra iron over time can build up to lethal levels in the birds’ bodies. Refined white sugar has had the trace iron removed to make it a more attractive product, which incidentally makes it safer for hummingbirds. Unfortunately for those of us who try to shop green, lightly refined organic sugar contains several times as much iron as conventional white sugar, so it’s probably not safe for hummingbirds.
  • Honey. It’s a natural food, but only if you’re a honeybee. Honey-water diets have been linked with fatal yeast infections (candidiasis) in captive hummingbirds (3), and similar infections have been reported in wild ones. Honey belongs on your biscuits, not in your hummingbird feeders.
  • Commercial “instant nectar” and “hummingbird food” products. Most contain unnatural and unnecessary additives such as dyes, preservatives, and/or flavors that, despite what manufacturers and retailers may claim or imply, have never been tested or approved as safe for hummingbirds. Those products without additives are grossly overpriced boxes or bags of sugar.
  • Artificial and non-nutritive sweeteners. This includes saccharin (Sweet’N Low®), aspartame (Equal®, NutraSweet®), sucralose (Splenda®), stevia (Truvia®, PureVia®), monkfruit or lo han (Nectresse®), acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K), erythritol, and xylitol. These sweeteners do not provide the calories (energy) that hummingbirds need to survive.
  • Nutritional supplements. The nectar of hummingbird flowers is little more than sugar water anyway (1), and anything else you add can cause premature spoilage and other problems. This includes commercial diets for captive hummingbirds, protein powder, liquid vitamins, fruit juice (except a teaspoon or two of natural juice concentrate for color), vanilla or orange extract, herbal extracts, Jell-O, and Gatorade. Hummingbirds are resourceful and efficient hunters, even in winter, but you can provide a safe protein/vitamin boost by raising fruit flies in jars or starting a compost pile. For minerals to help nesting females build strong eggshells, offer clean ashes from natural wood (no synthetic logs, paper, trash, etc.).

See this post for a more comprehensive list of “don’ts.”

Resources for this post:

1. Nicolson, S. W. and P. A. Fleming. 2003. Nectar as food for birds: the physiological consequences of drinking dilute sugar solutions. Plant Systematics and Evolution 238(1-4):139-153. (PDF)

2. Lotz, Chris N. and Carlos Martínez del Rio. 2004. The ability of rufous hummingbirds Selasphorus rufus to dilute and concentrate urine. Journal of Avian Biology 35(1):54–62.

3. Orr, K.A. and M. E. Fowler. 2001. 18: Order Trochiliformes (Hummingbirds). In Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of South American Wild Animals, Murray E. Fowler, Zalmir S. Cubas Eds. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa.

4. Frederick, H., Dierenfeld, E., Irlbeck, N., and S. Dial. 2003. Analysis of nectar replacement products and a case of iron toxicosis in hummingbirds. In Ward, A., Brooks, M., Maslanka, M., Eds. Proceedings of the Fifth Conference on Zoo and Wildlife Nutrition, AZA Nutrition Advisory Group, Minneapolis, MN.

5. Ketz-Riley, C.J. and C. Sanchez. 2015. Chapter 26: Trochiliformes (Hummingbirds). Pp. 209-213 in Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, Volume 8, R.E. Miller, M.E. Fowler eds. Elsevier (Saunders).