Aug 1, 2018 | 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 scummy, 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.

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. 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.

Don't use insecticide anywhere near your nectar feeder, or anywhere the hummingbirds are likely to perch. Hummingbirds are so small—it doesn't take much poison to make them sick. If you choose to use insecticides anywhere near where you feed hummingbirds, take your feeders down before you spray, and leave them down for a while afterward.

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 is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018