Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Lots Of Birds Love Hummingbird Nectar

Dear Bird Folks,

I have been feeding birds for a long time. In fact, I think I’m one of your top ten customers. Like many people I now have orioles coming to my hummingbird feeder. Recently, however, a chickadee has been feeding on the hummingbird feeder, too. I’ve never seen that before. Is that normal?

– Nancy, Harwich, MA


I’m not sure, Nancy,

I’m not sure if you are one of our top ten customers, but you should be. I like that you readily accepted chickadees coming to your hummingbird feeder and didn’t complain about them. Many folks enjoy whatever birds come to their feeders, while others are not so flexible. For example, I’d have a better chance of creating peace in the Middle East than trying to convince some customers that cardinals and Blue Jays are both interesting birds and should be enjoyed equally. In the world of bird feeding discrimination is alive and well. I’m glad you aren’t a part of it.

The hobby of feeding birds is a fairly new occurrence. Fifty years ago very few people had birdfeeders, and of those few, only a small percentage put out hummingbird feeders. Back then everyone was too focused on coonskin caps, hula hoops and bikinis. Fortunately for raccoons, those disgusting caps are no longer in style and fortunately for the rest of us, the popularity of hula hooping has slowed dramatically. (I’m not going to comment on the bikini thing. I’m still sleeping on the couch after last week’s mention of Vegas showgirls.) Anyhow, the point of this is, as more people put out hummingbird feeders more species of birds are likely to discover them. This brings up another question: Is it natural for birds to gobble up sugar? The answer to that seems to be, yup, it is natural.

One of the more common birds at hummingbird feeders, besides hummers and orioles, are woodpeckers. Out West, where hummingbird feeders are extremely common, woodpeckers can be a bit of a headache. Woodpeckers are strong birds and can easily remove any plastic guards that stand between them and the sugar water. When I first heard about woodpeckers coming to sugar water feeders, I was surprised. It makes sense for orioles to be attracted to sugar water; after all, they love sweet fruit. But woodpeckers? Woodpeckers eat gaggy maggots and bitter bugs. It didn’t make sense. Then it hit me. Sapsuckers, which are woodpeckers, live on sugar. They are sugar-eating champs. And sapsuckers don’t just mooch off of our feeders; they drill tiny holes into trees and lap up the forthcoming sap. In essence, they make their own feeders, and I hate that. What would happen to me if all the birds started making their own feeders? I can’t even think about it. Let’s move on.

Naturally occurring sap attracts a surprisingly long list of bird species. In addition to hummers, orioles and woodpeckers, some waxwings, warblers, mockingbirds, juncos, finches and vireos also have a sweet tooth. And now, according to you, Nancy, we can add chickadees to that list. Some of these birds satisfy their sugar-lust by carefully watching the actions of sapsuckers and then stealing their sap when they aren’t looking. With other birds the sap taking is more serendipitous. For example, a broken tree branch may produce a flow of dripping sap that many birds will happily take advantage of.

Speaking of saps, when I was in elementary school a spring ice storm damaged a number of sugar maples in my neighborhood. Hundreds of broken branches caused the trees to literally rain sap. This rare event not only attracted lots of birds, it also attracted me and several of my idiot friends. As we walked to school, we stopped under each tree and tried to catch the sticky drops with our tongues. We managed to snag lots of drops, but many more missed our tongues and splashed all over our faces. So what? We were having fun. Well, it was fun until we got to school and the splattered sap began to dry. Within an hour my face became stiff and rigid and my hair stuck straight up. I looked liked the lost child of Don King and Joan Rivers.

Right now only a handful of birds have figured out that our hummingbird feeders offer sugar water, but it’s only a matter of time before other species of birds catch on. Someday we might see vireos and waxwings on our feeders. How cool would that be?

On a similar subject: Late August is prime bee season. Each year at this time we get tons of calls from people who can’t keep bees and wasps out of their hummingbird feeders. Unfortunately, we don’t have a good solution for them (and no, sprays and oils are not an option). Using feeders that come equipped with bee guards will help a little, but it doesn’t stop the bees from hanging around. Some people find that “sacrificing” a feeder to the bees works pretty well. They continue to fill and maintain a feeder that is just for the bees, but they also put out a second feeder in a different location. The hope is that the hummers find the new feeder while the bees continue to use the old sacrificial feeder. I like this solution the best. Not only does it seem to work, but it also means that I sell more feeders. Take that, sapsuckers.