Hummingbirds get the energy they need to maintain their astonishing metabolism primarily from flower nectar and the sugar water they find at feeders (here's the recipe). For protein and other nutrients, they also eat soft-bodied insects and spiders; I like Bob Sargent's perspective: "Hummers need nectar to power the bug eating machine that they are." Think of them as miniature flycatchers, and sugar is just the fuel for getting their real nourishment. You might try setting out some overripe fruit--banana peels are good--to attract flies for your hummers. If you have developed a particularly entertaining method of providing bugs for their dining pleasure, I'd be more than happy to publish it here. :-) Meanwhile, let's talk about nectar feeders, some of which are reviewed on another page.
A Little History...
The device pictured at left is an example of the first commercially-available hummingbird feeder. It was designed by Laurence J. Webster of Boston for his wife, who had read a 1928 National Geographic story about feeding hummers from small glass bottles. Sometime between 1929 and 1935, Webster had his design produced by an MIT lab glassblower (possibly James Ryan). In 1947, National Geographic ran an article by Harold Edgerton about his newly-invented strobe flash, which included photos of hummingbirds at Webster's feeder. Interest was aroused, and in 1950 the Webster feeder was offered for sale by the Audubon Novelty Company of Medina, NY.
Choosing a Feeder
There are many imaginatively-styled hummingbird feeders available today, and they're sold in stores ranging from birding shops and garden centers to discount marts, as well as by mail order. Most feeders are made of plastic, glass, and/or ceramics. Since feeders are much too recent a development for hummingbirds to recognize instinctively as food sources, they must learn to use them, which they do from watching other hummers and though their own natural inquisitiveness. If your birds seem to prefer one style feeder over another, it's probably a simple matter of familiarity. If you change feeders, they may not feed immediately from the new one, but they will adapt; it may help to hang the old feeder, empty, next to the new one.
Any feeder can attract hummers, so perhaps the most important design feature to look for is ease of disassembly and cleaning. In this respect, the basin-style feeders are much, much better than the inverted-bottle types. I recommend the HummZinger and similar well-designed basin feeders for their ruggedness as well as their ease of maintenance. Hummingbirds will come to any feeder that holds fresh syrup, so you might as well buy one that's easy for you to keep up - if it's easy, you're more likely to do it faithfully, and that's important.
Should you buy a feeder with perches? Many photographers prefer not to use perches, because they can get better pictures of hovering birds. But hummers live at the edges of their energy envelopes, and perching saves a lot of calories. Consider that when hummingbirds feed from natural flowers, they spend very little time at any one blossom; on the other hand, they may drink from one feeder port until they are satiated, and hovering is considerably more tiring to them than normal flight. Give them a break, and provide a place for them to rest. After all, many hummingbirds spend around 80% of their time perching anyway, on twigs and leaf stems.
This is not an endorsement, but in response to several requests, here's the address for Perky-Pet Products, the manufacturer of several popular feeder models:
69 North Locust Street
Lititz, PA 17543
I do not manufacture or sell feeders, or anything else for that matter, so please don't write me to complain if your feeder breaks. Write the manufacturer or see your local dealer.
Location, Location, Location
Where to hang your feeder? A new one may be found sooner if hung over or near a garden of hummingbird plants. My feeders are near windows, where I can watch and enjoy them: one is in a living room window, another outside the kitchen, and a third hangs a foot or so from my office window.
Some people feel that a hummingbird feeder should not be placed close to a window unless there's a drawn curtain or blind behind it, to avoid injury from striking the glass. Other ways to alert birds that the window is not a clear flyway are to add cutouts of predatory birds, windsocks, or decorative flags (on the outside). I've never had a hummer strike my windows (although a few have been pushed bodily into the glass by aggressive territory defenders), and I have mini-blinds that seem to be a good deterrent even when tilted open.
Filling the Feeder
The sugar water we use to fill hummingbird feeders is only a supplement to the birds' natural diet. It's not necessary to buy a commercial "nectar" mix that includes additional vitamins, protein, or other substances, because the birds get all they need from the flower nectar and insects they consume. All they want from us is the quick energy they get from ordinary white cane sugar. It's just fuel for chasing bugs, and causes no known health problems in hummingbirds, whose metabolism is significantly different from humans'.
A note about sugars: natural nectars may contain any of the plant sugars, including sucrose, glucose, and fructose. There is no proven advantage in using, say, fructose instead of sucrose (cane or beet sugar). In fact, given the choice, hummingbirds seem to prefer sucrose above all others. Sucrose is by far the most common sugar in the flowers of plants for which hummingbirds are the primary pollenators. Water and sugar (usually sucrose) are the only constituents common to all natural nectars; most also contain traces of minerals and amino acids, but they vary from plant to plant, and probably are of little dietary importance.
What about beet sugar? I have read anecdotal evidence that hummingbirds can taste the difference between cane and beet sugars, and at least sometimes will reject beet sugar completely. If you can't seem to attract hummers and are using white sugar that's not specifically labeled as cane, try changing to a brand that is.
Americans can't use raw sugar, because its sale is banned in the U.S. due to diverse and unpredictable impurities (bacteria, molds, heavy metals, rat excrement, insect parts, etc.). The so-called "raw" sugar (also known as turbinado) common in third-world countries and marketed by health food stores is actually refined by the same process as white sugar, but without removing all of the molasses and other non-sugar components. The result is a less-pure sucrose that contains about five times as much iron as white sugar; since iron is essential but normally rare in hummingbird diets, their bodies hoard it, and even a modest excess of iron can poison them. If you have the choice, use only white sugar in hummingbird feeders.
Please, do not put honey, Jell-O, brown sugar, fruit, or red dye (also known as food coloring) in your feeder! Honey ferments rapidly when diluted with water and can kill hummingbirds. The effects of red dye have not been not scientifically tested, and it is not necessary to color the water to attract birds to your feeder. Further, there are unverified reports that red dye can cause tumors in hummingbirds; this may or may not be true, but why take the chance?
Here's the recipe for artificial nectar (syrup):
Use one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water.
It's not necessary to boil the water. The microorganisms that cause fermentation don't come from the water; they are transported to the feeder on hummingbird bills.
Store unused syrup in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
This mixture approximates the average sucrose content (about 21%) of the flowers favored by North American hummingbirds, without being so sweet it attracts too many insects.
Distilled water may be used instead of tapwater. However, some researchers are concerned that distilled water lacks minerals that hummingbirds need, and believe it would be prudent to add a pinch of sodium-free salt, which contain potassium chloride, to feeder solutions made with distilled or demineralized water. This should help bring the salt content of artificial nectar back in line with that of natural nectar and help prevent electrolyte deficiencies. Do not use table salt (sodium chloride). Adding salt is not necessary if well or tap water is used.
Any syrup solution will spoil eventually, regardless of temperature, so strict maintenance is required (see below).
For the sake of completeness: another view of syrup concentration appeared in the May 1993 article by Reed Hainsworth and Larry Wolf, both noted hummingbird researchers. However, it's not clear that the health of the birds was considered, or merely their preferences - like children, hummers may tend to eat more candy than is good for them - and there is still a suspicion that high sugar concentrations can cause liver damage in hummingbirds. When I wrote Dr. Hainsworth asking for a reference to a more rigorously-scientific treatment of his data (i.e., a published paper), his reply dodged the question. Without reflection upon anyone's reputation, I stand by the opinion of the majority of hummingbird researchers, that a 1:4 mixture has been shown to do no harm, and any other formula must remain suspect.
There are some specialized protein-added hummingbird food mixtures (e.g., Nektar Plus) that are useful in laboratory or rehabilitation settings, where no natural food is available, or possibly in emergency winter situations when hummingbirds will die without it. But realize that these mixtures are especially vulnerable to spoiling and in an ordinary feeder setting during warm weather would need to be changed every few hours.
Hanging a hummingbird feeder means assuming a certain amount of responsibility for the well-being of a fragile and trusting animal. If you are not prepared to follow the rigorous maintenance routine outlined below, perhaps you should consider planting a hummingbird garden, instead.
Experts tell me that hummingbirds will starve rather than consume spoiled feeder syrup, so a dirty feeder isn't likely to cause harm. But it may cost you the pleasure of their company if they abandon your yard for more reliable food sources elsewhere.
Every filling, flush the feeder with hot tap water; a bottle brush can be very helpful. Do not use soap - hummers apparently don't like the taste, but bleach will remove it if you have this problem. Visually inspect the entire feeder for black mold; a bleach soak (see the next paragraph) is the best way to remove mold. Discard any unconsumed sugar water. If the birds are not emptying your feeder between cleanings, it's unnecessary and wasteful to fill it completely. If the sugar solution in your feeder turns cloudy, it's spoiled and needs to be replaced. This can happen in as little as two days.
At least once a month, clean the feeder thoroughly with a solution of 1/4 cup bleach to one gallon of water. Soak the feeder in this solution for one hour, then clean with a bottle brush. Rinse well with running water and refill. Any remaining traces of bleach will be neutralized by reacting with the fresh syrup, and there's no need to air dry before refilling. Bleach is both safe and very effective.
These is evidence that bleach accelerates leaching of BPA (a chemical known to cause genetic damage in mammals) from polycarbonate plastic. No one, as far as I know, has studied its effects on birds. If you are concerned about BPA, use full-strength white vinegar instead of bleach.
When to Take Down the Feeder
Hummingbirds will not delay migration if a feeder is present; they are driven by forces more powerful than hunger. If you live in the southeastern U.S., leaving a feeder up might attract one of the western hummers that visit the region in small numbers every winter. The Pacific coast of the U.S. (and extreme southwestern Canada) has a population of non-migratory Anna's Hummingbirds; if a feeder is maintained over the winter, hummers will visit it year-round. Some other locations near the Mexican border also have winter populations of several hummingbird species. See the About Hummingbirds section for more information.
They will find your feeder, unless you take precautions. Buy a dripless feeder; they really make a difference. Some feeder models feature a built-in ant moat that may be filled with water; don't use oil, since chickadees and other small birds like to drink from ant moats. You can make your own moat by running the hang wire through a hole in a spraycan top (use a dab of silicone sealer or hot glue to seal the hole). But the best defense against ants is to paint the inside bottom of an ant moat with Tanglefoot, a very sticky goo sold at nurseries, and install the moat open side down. This is extremely effective against ants, poses no risk of a bird getting stuck or contaminated, and is low maintenance, since it keeps the goo from being compromised by rain and dust. If you use Tanglefoot, or any other sticky or oily substance, you must be absolutely sure it cannot come into contact with a bird.
I no longer recommend using duct tape or castor oil around suction cups or on hang wires. There's too much chance of a hummer brushing against it during feeder fights.
Bees, Wasps, and Yellowjackets
Bees and wasps are attracted to the color yellow. Since many hummingbird feeders have yellow plastic "flowers" or other parts, try removing such parts or painting them red before hanging your feeder in the spring - once bees learn where food is, they fly right back to the hive to tell all their friends, so avoiding their attention up front works best.
You can buy a feeder with bee guards. However, those tend to be the drippiest feeders available (Perky-Pet "Four Flowers," etc.), and once they start dripping the bee guards are useless, since puddles form in the flowers outside of the bee guards, an easy meal for insects.
Bees tell each other about good nectar sources using pheromones, so it may help to clean the feeder daily with vinegar. It may also help to rub a clove of garlic around the ports. I don't recommend using Pam or other oils or greases on hummingbrd feeders.
The only sure defense against bees and wasps is to absolutely deny them access to the syrup. In June 1997 I replaced my Perky-Pet 210-P with a HummZinger, which is inherently wasp-proof because the syrup level is too low for insects to reach, but easily in range of the shortest hummingbird tongue. I also bought a Perky-Pet Oasis feeder, a copy of the HummZinger with several design flaws, but just as effective against bees. Basin feeders are also available from Opus and other companies, and all are effective in denying food to bees and wasps. All are also easy to clean.
If you choose not to try a new feeder and wasps persist, first try moving the feeder, even just a few feet; insects are not very smart, and will assume the food source is gone forever. They may never find it in its new location, while the hummers will barely notice that it was moved. If that doesn't work, take the feeder down for a day, or until you stop seeing wasps looking for it. You'll see hummers looking for it, too, but they won't give up nearly as soon as the wasps. Also, reducing the sugar concentration to 1 part sugar in 5 parts water will make it less attractive to insects, but probably won't make the hummingbirds lose interest.
Photo © Dan True
In some parts of the American Southwest near the Mexican border, bats like hummingbird feeders, too. Dan True got this photo of a Mexican long-tongued bat raiding the pantry. These gentle mammals are voracious nectar lovers, but they are also vital pollinators of saguaros, other giant cacti, and the large agaves.
Bats can empty your feeders overnight, every night. If this is a problem for you, use a feeder with bee guards. Taking feeders in overnight will keep the bats away, but remember that hummers start feeding as early as 45 minutes before sunrise, and they really need the energy after a cool night.