May 10, 2021 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2018

Hummingbird Feeders 101

Hummingbirds flock around a backyard nectar feeder.

A good rule for feeding hummingbirds is to put out only as much sugar-water solution as will be consumed in a couple of days. If this means partially filling a big feeder, that's fine; you save yourself the expense and trouble of dumping out spoiled solution. Early in the spring, I put out small feeders, switching to the big feeders later on.

My favorite feeder design has a snap-apart base that fits on an ordinary clear plastic soda bottle. That's a boon when I have 20 or more hummingbirds vying for limited amounts of solution. When the bottle gets a little weather-worn, I recycle it and use a new one.

If you're in the market for a new hummingbird feeder, consider:

  • Red parts—to catch a passing hummer's attention.
  • Ease of cleaning—a clean feeder keeps birds healthy.
  • Capacity—Is it enough for you and your hummingbirds? You don't want to have to fill it every few hours in late summer.

Almost all the good feeders on the market feature bright red parts. This is to attract the attention of thirsty hummers, just as red flowers do. Other bright colors may work, but red is the most eye-catching for hummingbirds.

A good hummingbird feeder is easy to clean. Look for a design that doesn't require ET (the extraterrestrial) fingers or a bottlebrush to clean. The best hummingbird feeders can be taken apart completely in seconds and have no nooks and crannies. You should be able to scrub out the feeding ports and reservoir completely without special tools.

Sad to say, but those nifty-looking handmade ceramic feeders are rarely cleanable. Stick with clear plastic or glass; those will let you see how much solution remains, and whether the feeder needs to be washed.

Feeders that have feeding ports facing up toward the sky can't drip; those with feeding ports off the side or pointed toward the ground invariably drip, attracting insects and often emptying themselves without help from the birds! Look for feeder designs that minimize drippage. If you buy a feeder that leaks, take it back for a refund and try another make or model.

If you're starting a new hummingbird feeding station and you don't have blooming flowers already attracting hummingbirds, try hanging a bright red or orange ribbon below the feeder. This flash of bright color improves the feeder's chances of catching the eye of a passing hummingbird.

I Dream of Hygiene

After getting the 4:1 water-to-sugar ratio right, the most important thing you can do is to keep your feeders scrupulously clean. Here's where feeder design comes in. My favorite feeder—with the pop bottle reservoir—disassembles in seconds and has no small parts to lose into the garbage disposal. The easy-to-clean base looks like a deep-dish pie plate with a big red screw-on lid. In hot, humid weather, I take it down every other day, dump out any remaining sugar solution, and wash it thoroughly in hot, soapy water, rinsing well.

It's time to wash your feeders if the solution turns cloudy or (heaven forbid) begins to grow clumps of gelatinous mold or black scuzz. This reaction can happen in as few as two days in the heat of summer, so err on the side of cleanliness and make washing your feeders a regular habit. Do it each time you refill the feeders. Spoiled solution can harm hummingbirds.

Putting red food coloring in your hummingbird nectar is totally unnecessary. If your feeder has red parts, or if you have bright flowering plants nearby, that should be enough to attract hummingbirds to your yard. Some debate exists about the health effects of food coloring on hummingbirds, so my advice to you is to avoid it. If you have no flowers, and your hummer feeder is faded, tie a bright red ribbon to the feeder. You can also revive a faded hummer feeder with bright red nail polish, painting red flowers—or even blobs or streaks—on the outside of the dispenser, away from the ports. I do this every spring on my older feeders. Be sure to let the polish dry thoroughly before filling and hanging the feeder.

If you want to see a hummingbird eat insects, leave an old banana out until it begins to draw fruit flies. Place the banana and its band of bugs outside near your hummingbird feeder. If the wind isn't too strong (which blows the flies away), you may get to see a hummingbird snapping up these tiny insects. Hummers eat lots of insects, which are a good source of protein.

Deterring Ants and Bees

Prevent ants from reaching your nectar by hanging an ant moat above it. Ant moats are like tiny upside-down open umbrellas. Ants can't swim, so by keeping the ant moat filled with water, they won't be able to get to the nectar feeder. Deterring bees: Move the feeder a few feet every few days. Offer a flat tray of sugar water elsewhere in your yard to help honeybees. Bees prefer yellow to red, so minimize yellow on your nectar feeder, but plant lots of nectar-producing yellow flowers in your yard, far from your nectar feeder. Bees will find a dripping nectar feeder, so a feeder with upward-facing ports thwarts bees.

Because hummingbirds eat tiny flying insects, please don’t use insecticides or any other sort of pesticide in your yard. Hummingbirds are so small—it doesn't take much poison to make them sick. Insect repellents, such as citronella-based products, are okay, but please don’t poison hummingbird food (insects)!

Also, don't apply cooking oil, petroleum jelly, or any other slick substance near your nectar feeder, not even from the pole or hanger above it. Such gunk on the feathers can be dangerous to a hummingbird in rain or chilly temperatures.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021
  • This breaks my heart. God strengthen your spirit and comfort your heart.I am fortunate to be taking a vacation next month, hopefully before sky high inflation hits and I can no longer afford it.
    by Ironweeds, Fri, 27 Aug 2021