Hummingbird Nectar

The Origins & History of Hummingbird Feeders

Long before the use of manufactured hummingbird feeders became so popular, early bird researchers discovered that they could alter the natural behavior of the hummingbird’s foraging to include using a man made nectar substitute and, eventually, man-made feeders as well. John James Audubon provides the earliest documentation of humans feeding hummingbirds in his most famous publication, The Birds of America, 1840-1844. Writing about the Ruby-throated hummingbird, in Vol. IV, page 193, Audubon states “I have seen many of these birds kept in partial confinement, when they were supplied with artificial flowers.., in the corollas of which water with honey or sugar dissolved in it was placed.” He remarked that they “seldom lived many months, while others supplied with fresh flowers and live insects lived 12 months.” Audubon never mentions by name anyone who fed hummingbirds in his time or before.

It wasn’t until 1899, fifty-five years after Audubon’s publication that the subject of humans feeding hummingbirds came into print. In that year’s October issue of Bird-Lore, the official publication of the Audubon societies, Dr. Clifton Hodge of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, wrote an article entitled “A Pleasant Acquaintance with a Hummingbird.”

Dr. Hodge tells of an incident where, by accident, in a laboratory classroom, he discovers how he can attract hummingbirds to come to a sweetened mixture. The incident occurred during a class he was teaching about bees and honey. A hummingbird flew into the classroom and quickly tasted different experimental “honey spreads” and also frequenting some of the cut, fresh flowers students brought to the laboratory. Dr. Hodge captured the bird and kept it in a cage overnight, and, again by accident, discovered that they can become torpid on cold nights. Back in class the next morning he put two fresh nasturtiums in his jacket buttonhole, ‘one well loaded with honey, the other filled with the juices of crushed spiders and spiders’ eggs.” When he released the hummingbird, “the little charmer was probing the buttonhole flowers. Then, as if anxious to show off, he again perched on my hand and went through his postprandial toilet. Some said that I must be in league with higher powers, and it all must have been ‘providential.’ This may be true, for anything I know to the contrary. But it may have been simply improving the opportunities of a happy accident... If flowers and honey can do it, at any rate, such accidents shall be more frequent about my home in the future.”

Exactly a year later, in the October 1900 Bird-Lore, Caroline Soule wrote about her experiences making an artificial feeder that resembled a natural flower. Whether she saw Dr. Hodge’s article of the previous year and carried his experiments one step further, or whether she figured out how to feed hummingbirds on her own will never be known. But, she is the first person on record that devised an artificial feeder. It has been widely assumed that in their native territories some people probably did feed hummers in seashells and other natural containers. Soule was the first to create an artificial feeder to attract hummingbirds. She wrote, “One day I painted a trumpet flower in water-colors on a rather stiff piece of Whatman paper. I painted it as a real flower would look if slit down on one side and spread flat, and I colored both sides. Then I cut out the flower, bent it into shape, and fastened the edges together. Inside the tube I put a small, cylindrical bottle, and tied the flower to the trumpet creeper in an almost normal position. The little bottle I filled with sugared-water, not too thick. To my delight the Hummingbird visited that flower with no more hesitation than the real ones, and very soon preferred it, and I had to fill up the bottle at least twice a day.”

Another ornithological publication, The Wilson Bulletin, published an article in the December 1913 issue by Aithea Sherman entitled “Experiments in Feeding Hummingbirds During Seven Summers.” She discovered that the bird’s behavior can be modified and that hummers can be attracted to plain unadorned bottles filled with clear liquid. Her experiments proved that the birds recognized the bottles as food containers and that the birds remember the exact location of their food sources. Each year she would notice her Ruby-throats flew to and hovered at the precise spots where feeding bottles had been the previous year.

In the June 1928 issue of National Geographic, Margaret Bodine of Philadelphia wrote an article about her experiences feeding hummingbirds from miniature bottles, about two inches long, covered with a bright-hued material and filled with sugared water. She arrived at a sugar-water mixture by tasting flower nectar and matching the nectar’s taste to that of her mixture. “Those bottles are fastened among the blossoms and are speedily discovered by the Humming Birds. Once found, there are few daylight hours from the middle of June ‘til September when at least one is not there. Sometimes as many as eight are feasting at a time.”

The next major step in feeding hummingbirds came about in 1929 when Robert Woods of Azusa, California discovered a vacuum-principle feeder, which he described as “a bee-proof hummingbird drinking fountain.” He created several such devices in which the bottle was inverted into a cup and the nectar level would remain constant as long as the vacuum was not depleted or disturbed. Woods had created his feeders for his experiments testing the sense of smell in Anna’s hummingbirds, and as a sideline to see if the birds could be lured to his yard. Woods was the first person to put perches on his feeders to benefit the birds. So far, Woods has come closest to perfecting the backyard hummingbird feeder, but because his interests were in other areas, he didn’t recognize the potential of creating a backyard feeder as a commercial product.

Around this same time, B.F. Tucker was conducting hummingbird-feeding experiments in his weekend home in the foothills between Los Angeles and San Diego. By 1927, he had already been attracting and feeding hummingbirds using test tubes tied with brightly colored materials and filled with honey nectar solutions. By 1930 his hummingbird population had grown so enlarged that he needed more and larger feeding devices. So, he increased his feeder from test tube size to a quart container. He quickly realized he needed 25 of these quart feeders to sustain the population he was attracting. He discovered the need for ant-proofing his bee-proof feeders. He was the first person to realize that individual food ports could accommodate more birds per feeder. He also utilized the principle of providing a perch to conserve the birds’ energy levels.

The historical difference between Woods’ and Tucker’s feeders was that Tucker’s efforts were directed at attracting and feeding hummingbirds while Woods was experimenting with attracting hummingbirds using their sense of smell. Consequently, Tucker’s efforts had more public appeal and therefore more public exposure. Today Tucker’s home has become the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, owned by California State University at Fullerton. Woods and Tucker both created hummingbird feeders, but not for the public, not for commercial, widespread availability.

Roger Tory Peterson wrote, in a 1936 Audubon publication, the first instructions on how to make your own hummingbird feeder for home use. By January of 1947, the first advertisements for hummingbird feeding bottles began appearing in Audubon magazine. Later that same year, Bruce Kelly of Indiana, began advertising the same feeder. Both ads ran until 1950. By 1950, hummingbird feeders, more as we know them today, were about to become known to the larger public, largely as a result of a couple of businessmen who could see the commercial potential of mass produced hummingbird feeders. But, one more important development occurred before the introduction of the modem, mass-produced feeders.

In 1928, in Boston, Mr. and Mrs. Laurence Webster read Margaret Bodine’s accounts of attracting and feeding hummingbirds in National Geographic and inspired the Webster’s to begin their own feeding experiments. The Websters’ endeavors led to two important events: Harold Edgerton’s photographing hummingbirds for the first time using the revolutionary invention of the strobe photo flash, and Mr. Webster’s designing the first truly appropriate backyard hummingbird feeder. Utilizing his engineering background, he drew plans for a hummingbird-feeding device to be created entirely out of blown glass.

Using the blown-glass laboratory at his Alma Mater, M.I.T., the chemistry and physics people who worked in the lab made a prototype model from a 5-inch section of glass tubing with a 1-3/4 inch diameter. The hot glass was shaped with a bulge in the center and two opposing upcurving food ports were formed from 1/2 inch tubing and attached. A glass eye-hook was formed at the top of the feeder for hanging purposes and Webster, after experimenting with several colors for the feeding tubes, decided on a gold-impregnated glass which we see as bright red.

About thirty of these blown-glass feeders were produced in the M.I.T. laboratories for the Websters’. They were used extensively around the home and grounds and their hummingbirds attracted many folks who were allowed free access to the Webster formal gardens on Sunday afternoons. Hummingbird feeding was uncommon when Webster created his feeder, and sale of the feeder wasn’t his intention. However, when Edgerton’s strobe photos of hummingbirds feeding at the Webster feeders were published in a 1947 National Geographic article, inquiries about the availability of the Webster feeder began arriving in the mail. The first sales of a commercial hummingbird feeder were recorded with the Webster Hanging Feeder. By 1950, Audubon’s mail order gift shop was offering the Webster Feeder for $3.00. So 1950 marks the beginning of popular backyard hummingbird feeding as we know it today. SEE VIDEO

`Two hummingbirds appear still as they hover by a feeder, their wings beating at sixty times a second. This high-speed photograph (likely taken in 1938) was shot using an exposure of 1/100,000 of a second. Accurate observations of these birds' activities had eluded naturalists before the advent of flash photography. (CC) An exposure of 1/100,000 of a second caught this 1936 picture of hummingbirds in action. Since their wings beat sixty times a second, accurate observations of hummingbirds; activities had eluded naturalists before flash photography. Edgerton's strobe revolutionized bird photography and dozens of his pictures appeared in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE and naturalist publications. In this photogrpah the birds are humming around Mae Webster, a hummingbird enthusiast and wife of MIT alumnus Laurence Webster (Class of 1898) whom Edgerton visited a number of times in Holderness, New Hampshire for his bird documentation work. (CC)

To step back a few years you can view the December 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics which has an interesting article entitled "Hummingbird Cafeteria". Scroll to page 123.

In the past few decades many feeder designs were patented and offered on a wide scale to the public for sale. The second commercial feeder offered to the public was called an Audubon feeder, manufactured by the Audubon Novelty Company of Medina, NY. Another early design, still on the market in the 1990’s, was Brown’s Hummy-Bird Bar, originally of Tejunga, California. This feeder was the first to combine four feeding ports in one feeder design. Two ports for hovering hummers and two ports for perching hummers. By 1960, another feeder, inspired by the Webster design, appeared on the market. The Dinah Dee’s Best 1 Vacuum Hummer Feeders Fabulous Hummingbird Feeder, of San Antonio, Texas, was advertised and sold for $1.95. By spring of 1967, there were at least five commercial hummingbird feeders being advertised in Audubon magazine.

In 1981, the first hummingbird products (from Perky Pet Products in Denver) were published in the Thomas’ Register of Manufacturers. Today, at the beginning of the new millennium, there are dozens of manufactures of hummingbird feeders. While the original conception utilized the vacuum-principal and many manufacturers’ today still rely on this design, a major breakthrough in feeder design came with the arrival of the pan design feeders of the seventies and eighties. Both design types are on the market today and all hummingbird feeder designs are restricted to just these two types, so far.

The vacuum-principal designs are easy to recognize in that the nectar reservoir (or container) is always situated above the food ports, while in the pan-type designs the nectar is always stored below the food ports. Each design type has its proponents and the birds will use both under normal conditions. And, while we use both types at our home feeding station, I prefer the advantages of the pan-type feeders.

Hummingbird Market stocks only what we consider to be among the best feeders of their type and ones that offer the consumer the best value for the money.

Aspects makes the very finest feeders available in their 8 oz. Mini Hummzinger and the 16 oz. Hummzinger Excel.  Aspects is based in Rhode Island. These feeders share many attributes. They are all lifetime guaranteed, and as such are UV-treated to withstand the hot damaging rays of the sun. They offer perches so the hummers can reduce energy expenditure. All are bee and wasp-proof, can be pole mounted or hung, have built-in ant barriers, are difficult for other bigger birds to use, and are drip-proof and leak-proof. We believe that pan-type feeders offer the consumer the very best value for their money.


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