BIRD WATCH: Hummingbirds are not alone in craving sugar


Another plum tree blossom floated past the kitchen window.

It’s started. It happens every spring. As more flowering fruit trees burst into bloom, more petals fall.

They aren’t falling because the bloom is over and fruit is beginning to grow. They’re falling because the house finches are snacking on them.

You can watch them in the top of the tree, plucking one blossom after another. They twirl one in their bill, munching on it, and drop it when the last petal falls. Then they reach for another.

I tell myself they won’t denude the flowering tree. They’re only picking blossoms off its top — mostly.

Sometimes they are close enough to watch without a pair of binoculars. They appear to be enjoying a change from the feeder’s sunflower seeds.

Many years ago, a friend told me they were after the little bit of natural sugar found in the blossoms. It’s no secret that house finches like the sweet sugar water mix in hummingbird feeders. Apparently, they’ve found another source of sweet.

Most scientific thought says that birds lack a sense of taste and smell. There are some exceptions to the rule. Hummingbirds obviously have a sense of taste and a fairly sophisticated one.

They refuse to eat the sugar water mixture if it contains less and less sugar. Their taste buds prefer a mix of 3 or 4 parts water to 1 part sugar. Begin to water it down, as once was promoted, and they ignore your feeder.

When a formula advised 9 or 10 parts water to 1 part sugar, my husband remarked that was a starvation diet. The hummers agreed and ignored it.

One group of birds does have a sense of smell. Studies on vultures have established that fact.

When a fresh kill was hidden under trees or bushes, the birds showed up to devour it. Their olfactory senses are more highly developed than other birds.

When it comes to birds that like sugar-water, such as the hummingbirds and house finches, there are more of them than once was thought.

Orioles are notorious for their sweet tooth. So are some warblers, birds considered insect eaters. Orioles love fresh fruit so their taste for sweets is more easily understood.

Not so, the downy woodpecker a reader told me was coming to her hummingbird feeder.

In parts of the country where orioles are more numerous, many feeder tenders put out jelly for the birds, grape jelly. The organic jellies touting all natural ingredients, no corn syrup or fructose, are growing more and more popular. Only a very small amount is placed in a bowl or cup-type feeder.

In some instances where more generous feeding was taking place, birds actually drowned in the jelly because they couldn’t stop eating until it was gone.

In searching for an answer as to why hummingbirds and a few other birds are attracted to sweet food, scientists suggest it is a gene thing.

The sweet toothed avian fauna have mutated genes that are responsible for different tastes in different creatures.

It’s far more complicated than what I am capable of explaining. It all comes down to the hummingbirds’ T1R1 and T1R3 genes switching the birds from savory detectors to sugar detectors.

It’s a bit of a stretch for me to understand how this has come about — and I think some scientists are still wondering about it — but I’d like to know if these mutations are ongoing. As the word gets out, we’re hearing about other bird species that like the sweet stuff.

So, who is using your sugar-water feeders besides the hummingbirds and house finches?

Note: March 14, 7:30 p.m., Bob Boekelheide, former director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center, will be a guest speaker at the Sequim Bay Yacht Club. He will speak on birdlife along the local coast as well as address the status of the efforts to increase the Peninsula’s spotted owl population. Non-members are welcome at no charge.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected]

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