How to Feed Hummingbirds
Features to Look for When Choosing a Hummingbird Feeder:
(in no particular order)
- Color The most attractive color to hummingbirds is red. Look for red in the feeder itself rather than relying on dye to color the nectar solution. Hummingbirds are very inquisitive and even just a little bit of red on the feeder itself is quite sufficient. (See below for more on red dye.)
- Ant Protection Built in ant moats (check the feeder's packaging) or add-on ant moats solve most of the ants-at/in-the-feeder problem.
- Bee Guards The most attractive color to bees and wasps is yellow. The best feeders from most manufacturers no longer have yellow parts. Look for hummingbird feeders that claim on their packaging that their shape discourages bees from reaching the nectar (usually found with saucer-shaped styles).
- Perches Hummingbirds prefer to sit when they feed if they are able to do so. Perching conserves energy. Hovering at feed ports causes needless energy expenditure.
- Size The smaller the better, until you determine how heavy the hummingbird usage is.
- Cleaning There should be no little nooks and crannies in the feeder for mold to lurk in. A dishrag, a small bottle brush (an old, clean toothbrush is wonderful!), and a clean pipe cleaner should be sufficient tools for cleaning. Also very helpful are the tiny brushes specifically marketed for cleaning hummingbird feeder ports.
- Parts Look for feeders that do not require excessive twisting or snapping to be put together; this reduces the chance breaking parts or sloshing sticky nectar all over the feeder. (And your countertop, your shoes, your kitchen floor, your patio)
- Rain Guard Some hummingbird feeders with their feeding ports located on top of the solution reservoir may allow rain water to get into the feeder and dilute (and possibly contaminate) the nectar solution. Check the feeder packaging to see if a particular model is designed to limit this problem. There are also "rain guards" available, metal or plastic disks meant to hang above a feeder, marketed specifically for hummingbird feeders in regions with wetter climates.
- Wind Resistance Feeders hung in very windy locations may spill and make quite a mess doing so; several manufacturers are making a saucer style feeders that can be pole-mounted, and thereby are spill-proof, drip-proof and leak-proof. Pole mounted feeders offer the greatest stability.
- Plastic We have selected feeder manufacturers that use extremely durable and long lasting ultra-violet (UV) resistant polycarbonate. UV stable polycarbonate feeders outlast all others and usually come with a lifetime guarantee.
- Do you have an old feeder that the birds were visiting but then you took the old one down and put up the new feeder? And now the birds don't seem to want to go to the new feeder. Why?
- Hummingbirds are creatures of habit. They are very familiar with the old feeder and that is what they expect day-in and day-out. What to do? Hang the old feeder up near the new. Make sure the old feeder is clean and EMPTY. The birds will go to the old feeder, find out it is empty and then will visit the new feeder.
- Place feeders in shade whenever possible because the nectar will remain fresh longer. Never leave nectar in feeders longer than 3-4 days. If you don't mind changing it more often, it is fine to hang it in the sun.
- UV stable poly carbonate is the highest recommended material for feeders that are in direct sun. Most manufacturers of such feeders offer lifetime guarantees on their products.
- Locate feeders near nectar producing flowers, if possible.
- Hummingbirds have an equivalent to a GPS system. They’ll always to return to favorite flowers and feeders in familiar locations.
- The feeder should be placed out of the reach of predatory cats.
- We suggest hanging the feeder near a window so you can watch the hummers refuel. Hummingbirds are so quick and agile that they rapidly lose their fear of us slow humans. After a while of feeding outside of a window, most hummingbirds will let you come right up to the window and observe your hummers ar very close range.
- Put out as many feeders as you are willing and, most importantly, are able to maintain. Having more feeders/ plants may help lessen the competition amongst hummingbirds, especially if the feeders are hung out-of-sight from one another (and the gardens are well-spaced). You may want to check this by thinking like a hummingbird... You may not be able to see both feeders from inside your house, but a highly territorial hummingbird will find the perch outside that overlooks both!
- Experiment with feeder locations; once a hummingbird has discovered that a feeder is a reliable source of nectar, it will remember exactly where that feeder is. Go ahead and hang a feeder right up close to your house or even on a window. Hummingbirds are rather fearless, and don't mind being observed close at hand if you don't make any sudden moves.
- Hummingbirds are very territorial, especially adult males who will expend extraordinary energy defending “their” nectar supply. To encourage cooperation and not competition at the feeder, consider placing multiple feeders out of sight of each other and you may be rewarded with adult females and juveniles sharing a feeder.
- Hanging or pole mounted multiple feeders at different heights above ground level attracts more hummers/ species.
Changing Hummingbird Nectar
- Nectar feeders in full sun may spoil more rapidly than those which are shade protected.
- Exposed to heat and the sun sugars can ferment and turn to alcohol, it can evaporate and alter the sugar/ water concentration ratio, or bacterial growth can begin.
- Change nectar often to prevent such fermentation and mold or bacteria build-up. Twice a week is highly recommended in general. Particular circumstances, such as extremely hot or cold daily temperatures, may determine a longer or shorter “freshness time” for nectar. Fermented nectar (left out too long) is giving your hummingbirds a license to fly drunk. Avoid this happening by keeping a regular schedule for cleaning and refilling.
- Adult hummers know not drink spoiled nectar and their little internal GPS system will alert them to avoid that contaminated feeder. Changing your nectar solution as recommended will prevent juveniles, who are not as seasoned or experienced as adults, from drinking harmful nectar.
Cleaning Hummingbird Feeders
- Avoid using soaps, bleach, or chorines when cleaning your feeders between refills. Using hot water and a brush/sponge will leave no residues. Rinse well!
- A 50/50 dilute solution of vinegar is a good cleaning method for removing mold. But rinse well.
- Feeders need to be cleaned, and nectar changed every 3-4 days--more often in hotter weather. If you see black spots inside your feeder this is mold and you will need to scrub it out with a good bottle brush, but if you can't reach it with a bottle brush you can add some sand with water and shake the feeder to remove the mold.
- Don't fill the feeder more than half full if they can't drink it all before it needs to be changed.
- If you notice that the nectar is turning milky or that white strings or black spots are growing in it, change it more often. Clean the feeder with very hot water each time you refill it. Most good feeders, and all of of the ones that we sell, come apart for easier cleaning. Be sure and take them apart every time. It is usually the work of a couple of seconds. If contamination occurs, use a mild vinegar solution to sterilize it, but if you opt to use bleach, rinse thoroughly afterwards. Even a tiny amount of bleach could be harmful to birds weighing only a few grams! Glass or metal pieces can be boiled, but you should probably not boil plastic pieces. All of the high quality pan/ saucer type of feeders constructed of UV stable polycarbonate can safely be cleaned on the top rack of your dishwasher. The durability of this type of material guarantees many years of use without any warping, bowing or distortion of the feeder.
The Color Red
- Never use red food coloring.
- A very comprehensive link about Red Food Coloring
- Most feeders have the color red incorporated into their manufacture. Most feeders made today have enough red in their design and manufacture that the red coloring in the nectar is not necessary to draw the birds in. Also, once the hummingbirds have found the feeder, and if the nectar is replaced regularly, they will keep coming back to the same location. Coloration enables them to first find the feeder. They do not depend on the coloration after initial visits to the same location.
- Red dye #40, named Allura Red AC is petroleum based. Red dye #40 was originally made from coal tar, but it is now made mostly from petroleum. There is little reason to use it. It may be toxic to their little systems. In Europe, red dye #40 is not recommended for consumption by children. (Source: www.3dchem.com) There really is no scientific proof that red dye #40 definitely harms hummingbirds but knowing its source, why use it, especially if it has no benefits to the hummingbirds and will not attract hummingbirds any more than clear nectar does.
- For feeders that lack enough color, try tying a red ribbon to the feeder and/ or paint bright red nail polish on the food ports.
- Once they find it for the first time, their internal "GPS" system will effectively enable them to return to the same exact location time after time.
- There is no scientific evidence that red food coloring harms the hummingbirds. Natural flower nectar isn't colored, so why put something in your nectar solution that the real thing doesn't have?
- The red dye passes though the hummingbird's system. The Hilton Pond Center website has an image showing red dye #40 stains on a hummingbird at the site of excretion. And the dye also stains their excretions red. Naturalist and author Julie Zickefoose made an interesting observation while rehabbing a female hummingbird. The bird had been fed red nectar before entering her care, and she was shocked by the red droppings that the hummingbird continued to excrete for over a day after the red nectar was stopped. You can see pictures of the red-stained droppings. These indicators mean the red dye is "not metabolized, but passes through the kidneys, where it might cause problems." (Source: Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History)
- Hummingbirds in the wild get the vital nutrients they need mainly through the insects they eat--which some scientists say could be as much as half their diet. (A hummingbird that appears to be nectaring at any particular flower may instead really be hunting the insects that are attracted to the flower.) Many hummingbird researchers feel that nectar is actuality just the fuel these birds use to power their search for bugs.
- Avoid any and all additives. Keep it pure and simple.
- Never use honey, organic sugar, cane or agave syrup, brown sugar or artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners contain many natural elements that may be safe for humans but are harmful to hummers. They contain too much iron, calcium, etc.
- A honey water solution served up in hummingbird feeders can quickly become toxic and deadly. Honey rapidly ferments and also cultures a deadly bacterium. Contrary to popular belief, honey is not "more natural" than the plant sugars found in the nectar. Honey has been chemically altered by honey bees: it is flower nectar and whatever ever else the honey bee ingested, digested, and spit back out again. Honey is nothing like the sugars found in flower nectar. Honey should never be used in place of real nectar. It can prove very harmful, even fatal, for hummers.
- Do not use distilled as it takes out too many naturally occurring minerals
- If you have a water softener you may want to use partial or totally filtered water (Brita or the refrigerator water filter); sodium softeners may add too many minerals and salts to the water and reverse osmosis water is rather acidic.
- Boiling water for making nectar is good for several reasons. It eliminates chorines and any potentially harmful bacteria/microbes. Boiling water and eliminating bacteria will retard fermentation by at least 24 hours. Allow the water to cool before adding the nectar---boiling water with nectar will alter the 4:1 water ratio via evaporation.
- Boiled tap water is the preferred water to use. Tap water has been treated for human consumption, taking out harmful bacteria, etc. It does contain trace elements, as necessary minerals, that humans and hummingbirds need daily. Using hot or boiled water removes any potentially harmful bacteria, chlorine, fluorides, etc. that hummers don't need. Avoid distilled and purified water. Tap water or spring water is safe.
Lead in Water
Thank you for the tip about hot tap water as you mentioned in the paper. Water is indeed a large issue as we humans feed hummers. We also need to address the topic of sodium found in water softeners. And agricultural chemicals found in rural and suburban aquifers.
Sheri Williamson’s Claim
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn against using hot tap water for drinking or cooking, because hot water can pick up lead from plumbing and fixtures. Unlike sucrose, lead isn't any healthier for hummingbirds than it is for humans. Whether you use this product or plain sugar, use water heated on the stovetop, in an electric kettle, or in a microwave oven, not from the hot-water tap.
The New York Times Claim: Never Drink Hot Water From the Tap
The claim has the ring of a myth. But environmental scientists say it is real.
The reason is that hot water dissolves contaminants more quickly than cold water, and many pipes in homes contain lead that can leach into water. And lead can damage the brain and nervous system, especially in young children.
Lead is rarely found in source water, but can enter it through corroded plumbing. The Environmental Protection Agency says that older homes are more likely to have lead pipes and fixtures, but that even newer plumbing advertised as “lead-free” can still contain as much as 8 percent lead. A study published in The Journal of Environmental Health in 2002 found that tap water represented 14 to 20 percent of total lead exposure.
Scientists emphasize that the risk is small. But to minimize it, the E.P.A. says cold tap water should always be used for preparing baby formula, cooking and drinking. It also warns that boiling water does not remove lead but can actually increase its concentration.
More information is at http://www2.epa.gov/lead/protect-your-family#water or (800) 424-5323 (LEAD).
Hummingbird Market agrees with the above and adds:
If lead is present in any system it will always be present as you are turning on-and-off the hot water and it will always be present in the closed plumbing system.
Boiling does not remove lead but it disinfects the water by removing any bacteria, however, as you boil longer it will concentrate any heavy metals, minerals or other pollutants in it. This will happen because the water will evaporate leaving the same pollutants with less water.
Boiling tap water will cause any bicarbonates to be boiled off as carbon dioxide as well as any chlorine and other volatile compounds. You can get an analysis of the impurities present in your tap water by asking your water supplier. Tucson provides same in each monthly bill. The analysis will show the level of harmless (to drink) impurities such as sulphates, carbonates, sodium, calcium, magnesium etc., chlorine added by them to kill any bugs and hopefully a number of zeros against toxic ions such as lead and mercury, pesticide residues, bacteria and other items.
- Hummingbirds do not suck nectar. Their tongues lick up nectar at a high rate of speed – up to 20 times per second!
- Another Video
- The feeder ports may seems to be very distant away from the nectar. But the hummingbird does not have a hard time reaching the nectar. The hummingbird tongue is twice as long as its beak. If its beak is 1 inch long, the bird is able to reach 2 inches, therefore the hummingbird can touch the bottom of the bowl from the highest port with ease.
When To Put Up A Feeder
- Most Hummingbirds are migrants, and visit North America in the warmer seasons. Feeders should be put up in time for their arrival. This will vary greatly depending upon where you are located. In the Florida area they arrive as early as January, and in the Upper Great Lakes they arrive in May. It is important to know the average date they arrive in your specific area to get your feeder up 5-10 days before the average date so they will see your feeder up and take a drink, and possibly stay for the season in your backyard! States along the Mexican border may have several Hummingbird species every month of the year.
When To Take Feeders Down
- We have found one of the biggest misconceptions about hummingbirds is the belief that if you do not take your hummingbird feeder down they will not migrate. This is absolutely false! In many areas hummingbirds start to migrate even before the flowers and insects start to wane. Males generally migrate several weeks ahead of immatures (new hatchlings) and females. Migration begins as a result of available food, changing number of hours of daylight and the surge of hormones. Actually, migrating hummingbirds may be helped by feeders that are left up until at least two weeks have passed since seeing your last hummer.
Winter Nectar Solutions
- If you feed hummingbirds during below-freezing temperatures, raising the concentration of the nectar solution to 3 parts water: one part nectar can usually prevent the feeder from freezing up at temperatures around and below 25 degrees F.
What Else Can I Do to Attract Hummingbirds?
- Planting native flowering plants known to attract hummingbirds is always the best option for feeding hummingbirds. The list of favorite hummingbird plants, both native and non-native, is too long to go into here. There are many resources available today in which to find nectar plant information specific to your region.
- Nectar producing flowers only generate minute amounts of nectar every 24 to 48 hours. Several thousand such flowers are a necessity every day for a single hummer. A single small feeder holds as much nectar as tens of thousands of flowers produce.
- Maintain native habitat to encourage hummingbirds to visit your yard.
- For a special hummingbird treat, try putting out an opened banana on a plate. The fruit should attract fruit flies, and hummingbirds love to eat fruit flies. (A side benefit to this is that you may also attract a wide variety of butterflies, as well.)
- A final note: Hummingbirds like to bathe just as much as any other bird, but prefer water dripping off of leaves or spray coming from sprinklers and pond fountains. Try locating one of the many commercial "misters" amongst a leafy bush or tree. Any number of small birds will enjoy it as much as the hummers.
- Supplying nesting materials encourages nearby nesting opportunities to observe their building their nest, incubating eggs, feeding nestlings and observing fledglings take their first flight.