Backyard Ecology Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Exploring Nature in Your Backyard

10 Tips for Feeding Hummingbirds: Hummingbird Feeder Safety and Beyond

A well maintained and properly cleaned hummingbird feeder can be a fun way to attract and observe hummingbirds around your home. Photo credit: USFWS Midwest Region, public domain

Hummingbirds are fascinating and common visitors to our yards. Attracting and feeding hummingbirds is a favorite activity of many people. The internet and social media are full of advice for attracting and feeding hummingbirds, and like for most topics, some of the information is good and some isn’t. In fact, some of the information I’ve seen can be harmful or even deadly to hummingbirds. That’s why I’ve put together these 10 tips for safely feeding hummingbirds.

1) Make your own hummingbird food.

  • Making your own hummingbird food is easy, cheaper than buying pre-made mixes, and ensures that no extra additives are included.
  • To make your hummingbird food, simply dissolve 1 cup table sugar into 4 cups of tap water.
  • As long as your tap water is safe for human consumption, then it is safe for the hummingbirds to drink too. You don’t need to buy any special type of water for them.
  • You can boil or heat up the water to help the sugar dissolve, just let it cool down to room temperature before feeding it to the birds.
  • Only use regular table sugar – not honey or other sweeteners – to make your hummingbird food. Using honey or other sweeteners can make your hummingbirds sick.

2) Skip the red food coloring in hummingbird food.

  • There is debate about whether red food coloring is harmful to hummingbirds. There is no evidence that it is actually helpful. So, why take the chance when it isn’t needed?
  • The red around the base of the feeder is all that is needed to attract hummingbirds.
    • Not to mention, red is only one of the many different colors of flowers that hummingbirds are attracted to.
  • It is also easier to see any color changes or mold that may indicate the sugar water is going bad if your hummingbird food is clear instead of red.
Both male and female ruby-throated hummingbirds will perch near a good food source and try to chase other hummingbirds away from that food source. Photo credit: USFWS Midwest Region, public domain

3) Only put out a little food at a time.

  • Your hummingbirds should drain your feeders every 1-2 days. If they aren’t, then reduce the amount of sugar water you are putting out.
  • The amount of sugar water your hummingbirds consume may vary throughout the season. Adjust how much you put out accordingly.
  • It is ok to only partially fill your hummingbird feeders or even take some of your feeders down if your hummingbirds aren’t drinking the hummingbird food fast enough.
  • Only putting a limited amount of sugar water out at a time also reduces the temptation to stretch how long you wait before replacing what is in the feeder.
  • If you make more sugar water than you need at a time, store the extra in the refrigerator. Just let it warm up to room temperature before putting it out for the birds to drink.
    • The rule of thumb in #4 works just as well for knowing when it has been sitting too long in the refrigerator, as it does for knowing when it has been outside too long.

4) Replace your hummingbird food regularly.

  • The sugar water in your hummingbird feeder should be replaced at least once a week and more often in hotter weather or if your feeder is in a sunnier location.
    • During the middle of the summer it isn’t uncommon to need to replace the sugar water every day.
  • If you see any cloudiness or mold in the water, then it needs to be replaced immediately.
  • A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t want to drink it, then don’t feed it to your hummingbirds.
  • If you are going to be gone for several days, then take down your feeders and put them back up when you get back.
    • The hummingbirds will go to other food sources while you are away. They won’t starve because you took down your feeders.
  • Hummingbirds can get sick, and even die, from drinking hummingbird water that has gone bad.

5) Thoroughly clean your hummingbird feeder every time you put more food in it.

  • Never “top off” your feeder with fresh food. Always take the time to clean the feeder before adding more food.
  • Take the feeder apart and wash it thoroughly with dish soap or run it through the dishwasher if it is dishwasher safe.
  • Use a small bottle brush to clean each feeder port. There should never be any black mold or other “gunk” in the ports.
  • Hummingbirds can get sick or die from drinking out of dirty feeders.
Never put anything other than water into an ant moat in case a hummingbird decides to take a drink out of it or to munch on some of the ants found there. Photo credit: Bob Burch, public domain

6) Don’t put any type of grease, oil, or other substance on or near your feeder.

  • If you are having trouble with ants, try using an ant moat or ant guard filled with water.
    • Ant moats are plastic “cups” that you fill with water and hang above your feeder. The ants crawl down the chain, but then encounter the water and can’t cross it to get to the hummingbird feeder below the moat.
    • Make sure you replace the water regularly because the ants will attach themselves to each other to create bridges that other ants can cross. Also, if your moat goes dry, then they can easily walk across the plastic bottom.
    • Never use anything except water in the feeder because it can make the hummingbirds sick.
  • If you are having trouble with bees or wasps, then take the feeder down for a few days.
    • Flowers don’t produce nectar continuously throughout the whole summer. The hummingbirds, bees, and wasps will switch to other nectar sources and after a few days you may be able to put your feeder back up.
  • Hummingbirds can get sick or die if they get grease or oil on their feathers or if they ingest grease, oil, dish soap, or pesticides that were put on or near the feeder to discourage pests.

7) Think carefully about where you put your feeder.

  • Placing your hummingbird feeder in a partially shady location will keep the sugar water from getting quite so hot and may help it stay fresher a little longer, but don’t use this as an excuse to not change out your water on a regular basis.
  • Keep your hummingbird feeder high enough off the ground and far enough away from branches, porch railings, etc. that cats and other predators can’t reach the birds.
    • You want your hummingbird feeder to feed the hummingbirds, not feed hummingbirds to the local predator population.

8) Consider putting several smaller hummingbird feeders out instead of one larger one.

  • Hummingbirds are territorial about their food sources and will defend any good food source they find – this is true of both males and females.
  • Having multiple smaller food sources scattered about your yard makes it harder for a single bird to dominate all of the hummingbird feeders.
  • It might not look as impressive, but it’ll probably be better for the birds and give more birds the opportunity to use your feeders.

9) Leave your hummingbird feeders up for the fall migration.

  • It is a good idea to leave your hummingbird feeders up for several weeks after you see your last hummingbird.
    • You can also check one of the numerous sites on the internet that monitor hummingbird migrations to see if there are any hummingbirds still being reported north of you.
  • Leaving your feeders up won’t delay the hummingbirds’ migrations south; however, it may provide a much-needed energy source for any late migrants.
  • You may also pick up a “winter hummingbird” if you leave your feeders up.
Nesting ruby-throated hummingbirds prefer nectar from native plants over sugar water in hummingbird feeders. So, growing native plants in your gardens is a great way to provide hummingbirds with their preferred food sources without having to worry about maintaining a hummingbird feeder. Photo credit: Bill Buchanan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain

10) Plant native plants.

  • When we talk about feeding hummingbirds, we always think about sugar water and hummingbird feeders; however, hummingbirds need to eat more than just sugar water.
  • Approximately 80% of a hummingbird’s diet consists of small insects.
    • Planting native plants encourages the small insects which are vital to our hummingbirds.
  • Nesting hummingbirds prefer natural nectar from flowers over sugar water in feeders. That is why many people report seeing a mid-summer drop in the number of hummingbirds visiting their feeders.
    • Planting native plants that bloom during the summer will provide your hummingbirds with their preferred food sources.

Backyard Ecology: Creating Space for Pollinators and Wildlife
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I started Backyard Ecology as a way to share my love of exploring nature and learning about different plants and animals. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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