Attracting and Feeding
FEEDING and ATTRACTING Hummingbirds
The recipe for hummingbird nectar is on your hand (1:4 for the thumb and fingers). Just boil 1 cup of white table sugar (sucrose) with 4 cups of water for 2 minutes, and then fill your feeder when it has cooled.
It is important to change the nectar regularly. The timing for cleaning your feeder and refreshing nectar changes depending on the time of year.
Feeding in General
Would I drink that?
It is important to keep your feeder and the nectar clean. Every time a bird dips its tongue into a feeder, it is inoculating the nectar with microbes. These microbes feast on the sugars and soon, there is no sugar left, just an acidic, microbial cloud.
Look at the feeder and ask yourself, 'Would I drink that?'. If the answer is no, it is time to get busy. The best practice is to clean the feeder every time you refresh the nectar. This should occur every few days in summer, and at least once a week in winter.
It saves time to prepare a clean stock of nectar and keep it in the fridge. Only fill the feeder with the amount that will be used in a short period. Then you can clean and refill regularly from your fridge stock.
For cleaning, we recommend washing your feeder using normal dish soap and a brush if necessary. Dishwashers will leave a residue and strong disinfectants like bleach are best avoided. It is also important to choose a feeder that you can keep clean easily. This implies a simple design. Often the "arty" feeders are very beautiful to look at, but very difficult to keep clean.
So.... please keep your feeders clean and remember to wash the feeding ports as well.
Since the frequency for changing the nectar varies with temperature, RPBO volunteer and local artist Kate Romain, has created a useful calendar with an instruction sheet that you can print.
Click to download the Nectar Refresh Schedule
Most ornithologists agree that the nectar in your feeders should be as close as possible to that provided by nature. Flowers that coevolved with hummingbirds usually produce nectar that is relatively weak in sugar, containing 15-25% sucrose (white table sugar). This is why we recommend not more than 1 part sugar to 4 parts water.
It is thought that higher sugar concentrations, although enticing to the bird (think ice cream sundaes at every meal), could cause kidney damage and being sticky, we know they make it difficult for the bird to preen and that they need to find a source of fresh water to dilute concentrated syrups.
In rehabilitation, juvenile hummingbirds will dehydrate at concentrations greater than 1:6. However, birds in the wild have other sources of dietary water and so further dilution of our 1:4 recipe is not necessary. Some scientists also think that the large water volumes obtained from nectar, may be necessary to assist with cooling. Imagine how much water you would go through flying out in the heat of a mid-summer day!
Preservatives, Dyes and Scents
Most commercial hummingbird food products are a waste of money. Unlike many birds, hummingbirds can taste sugar, so they will return to a good clean supply of sweetness. Their main indicator of where food might be is the presence of bright colour. Many hummingbird flowers are red, which explains why feeders that mimic this natural advertisement are so successful. However, plants do not colour or scent their nectar and it is probably best that we do not either.
It is possible that artificial colouring may harm the birds, especially in the amounts consumed from feeders. Certainly, the red dye can be seen in their urine when they have used a dyed food source. Also of concern are the preservatives used to keep artificial nectar from spoiling. These could disrupt the natural microbial community in the gut, which is vital for things like putting on fat for migration and immunity. As we learn more about hormone disruptors like scents, it becomes increasingly evident that the precautionary principle should be applied to feeding these birds. Simple is better. The red plastic on the feeder should be a sufficient indicator that food is available.
The internet is a wonderful source of information, but sometimes well-meaning people can spread information that is not quite correct about feeding hummingbirds.
Please read below if you wish to know more about problems caused by common myths.
- Unsafe alternative sugar sources
- Protein in nectar – myths and truths
- Feeders don't delay migration
The sugar provided by plants that evolved with hummingbirds is primarily sucrose (white sugar). NEVER use honey, brown sugar, icing sugar, juice or artificial sweetener!
- Honey contains sugars that are less palatable to hummingbirds. It also ferments rapidly when diluted in water, which causes a rapid build up of bacteria in your nectar.
- Brown sugar contains molasses, but more importantly, it has 5 times more iron than white sugar. Since iron is relatively rare in a hummingbird diet, its body hoards the metal, and it will be poisoned.
- Icing sugar contains anti-caking agents such as corn starch, which can promote fermentation.
- Juice ferments rapidly.
Artificial sweetener does not provide the calories that a hummingbird needs to live.
There is an article circulating on the web that promotes adding protein to hummingbird nectar. This article is based on many false assumptions and the supplement suggested could actually be dangerous to the birds.
Sugar water is an excellent resource to supply. In winter, you are providing clean carbohydrates at a time when this resource is less abundant. Birds do need protein, but there is plenty of protein around even in the winter and we should be not be supplementing it.
Locally, we have seen a rapid expansion of the Anna's population. They not only overwinter here, but breed during these cold months. A population does not expand rapidly if there is any nutrient limitation, so rest assured, our hummingbirds are not lacking protein in their diets.
The birds can find lots of invertebrates (insects and spiders primarily) in the trees and in plantings around houses. So.... while it is very helpful to provide them with the sugar they need, we should be extremely cautious about introducing any protein into their liquid diet, as they will be scavenging invertebrates as well. This is not the case for captive birds such as those in rehab or in zoos. However, those birds are not being fed a diet designed for different life stages including rearing young.
Specifically, birds need to regulate the amount of protein they take in, especially when breeding, which is what the local Anna's are doing in the winter and early spring. Their requirements change substantially depending on where they are in the process of raising chicks. Too much protein can actually harm chick development.
Another urban myth being circulated is that hummingbirds eat ants. This is categorically untrue and is harmful to the bird. We have been researching their diet for a number of years and they don't eat ants. Hummingbirds eat soft bodied invertebrates such as small flying insects. If you would like to know more about what hummingbirds actually eat and feed their chicks, please read our research.
Our advice is to enjoy your birds and keep feeding them simple sugar water (1 part white sugar to 4 parts water). Let them find their own protein.
Please make a Tier3 link from the yellow highlight to the following:
Tier 3: Hummingbird Diet Research please read our research
Please make a link to the following research article:
- Moran AJ, Prosser SWJ, Moran JA. (2019) DNA metabarcoding allows non-invasive identification of arthropod prey provisioned to nestling Rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus). PeerJ 7:e6596 feed their chicks
There is an unfortunate urban myth that if people supply food for hummingbirds, they will not migrate south and risk death from freezing. This is not true.
You don't need to worry about feeders preventing a bird from migrating. The instinct to be on the move would override any (perceived) temporary supply of plenty. Our neotropical migratory birds have evolved with breeding grounds that always go into winter, which means food scarcity. So even if there is an abundance of food at the end of their breeding period, whether natural or artificial, only the birds that migrate are successful at surviving the winter months (where food supply is abundant on the wintering grounds); those are the birds that are able to breed again in the next season. This has caused a strong evolutionary pressure against birds that might stay.
So when do we expect migration? Rufous, Calliope, Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (neotropical migrants) typically migrate in mid- to-late summer. Some juveniles will continue to flow south right into late September. For Rufous, likely, they have come from much further north – areas such as Alaska. On occasion, you hear about a straggler (usually juvenile, unlikely an adult), but these are probably the result of very late nesting attempts and not a compulsion to stay with feeders.
Anna's Hummingbirds represent a rather different situation and feeders are thought to have played a part. Many of us on the coast have resident Anna's all winter, although there are increasing numbers overwintering in the interior. They have a late-summer migration away from their breeding grounds and some go north or into the interior. They may be seen in these non-winter areas in numbers well into September. Because Anna's are undergoing a rapid range expansion, they are often seen late season in new locations. They are very adaptable and the expanding edge of their range leads them into increasingly challenging over-wintering conditions. Their success or failure in these new habitats defines their range.
Please make links to these papers at the yellow highlights:
undergoing a rapid range expansion
Feeding in Winter
When the cold weather rolls around it is time to think about winter feeding and keeping those precious hummingbird feeders unfrozen.
Even in colder weather, we still recommend that you keep the nectar concentration at 1 cup white sugar to 4 cups water, if possible. This means that there is a risk of freezing and it is important to avoid the feeder freezing, as sugar is not present in ice. If nectar freezes, the remaining syrup has a huge sugar concentration. In the wild, birds can tolerate some slightly higher concentrations of sugar, as long as they have a dietary source of water. Unfortunately, in freezing conditions, free water for nectar dilution may not be readily available. So, in freezing weather it is even more important to make sure the sugar concentration doesn’t get too high.
There are great suggestions out there for keeping feeders ice-free, from putting them in sheltered conditions to bringing them in at night. Often, it is easiest to use feeder warming. Tara Longfellow’s article describes how to support hummingbirds in winter and most importantly, how to build a simple and cheap warming system. Or follow Sara Hiebert's step-by-step photo guide to building your own Feeder warmer.
Sugar Concentration in Nectar
Tara’s Winter-Feeding Article
Tier 3: Sara's Easy Home-made Feeder Warmer
When the temperature is below freezing or the snowflakes are falling, and a little Anna’s hummingbird is perched on a feeder or branch, our instinct is to help these beautiful, tough little birds survive the winter. It is amazing and wonderful that they can and they do. My obsession to help them started on Dec 31st, 2014, when a male Anna’s flew up to our kitchen window and hovered there, clearly begging for food. There was snow on the ground and snowflakes were gently falling from the sky. I couldn’t believe my eyes, unaware that hummingbirds overwintered in the lower mainland. I prepared some nectar and filled a makeshift feeder in record time. As soon as I got out the door, he flew right up to my face, stared me in the eye, and started feeding as I was carrying the feeder to it’s new home. I have been hooked since that moment and feel a huge responsibility to provide a continuous nectar supply over the winter months for those Anna’s that choose to overwinter here in the lower mainland of BC. Since the recommended sugar to water ratio of (1 to 4) has a depressed freezing point of -2.8 ° C, this only becomes problematic when the temperature approaches that. To ensure a continuous supply of nectar when the temperature is heading below zero, there are several things you can do to make this less challenging. Over the years, I have learned through trial and error and hope to help others help these beautiful little birds by sharing my experiences. It seems to me that hummingbirds, when given a choice, prefer tubular gravity fed feeders to bowl feeders. This is a big problem if the nectar freezes in the winter. I used to bring frozen feeders inside and hang them in the shower. When they thawed, they always leaked. The leaking seems to occur when the air above the nectar heats up and expands, forcing nectar out of the feeding ports. Also, since water begins to freeze at 0 °C and can be seen as frozen ice crystals accumulating in the nectar, the solution that isn’t frozen has a higher density of sugar in it which results in a more concentrated sugar solution. The hummers feeding on the solution at this point are getting a more sugary nectar which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when the temperature is falling. Obviously, once the solution becomes solid, they can no longer access this food supply. If you have a frozen tubular feeder, that leaks nectar as it thaws, you should dump out the nectar and replace it with fresh nectar regularly. This is because the above process happens in reverse. The concentrated nectar that froze last thaws first and often leaks out of the ports when the air above it heats up. If this happens frequently before the nectar is changed (e.g. freeze, thaw-leak; freeze, thaw- leak), the solution may become significantly more dilute than the original nectar and the hummingbirds may not be getting enough sugar to meet their energy requirements in the sub zero temperatures. Keeping Nectar Liquid At Freezing Temperatures Instead of fighting this battle with the tubular feeders, I invested in some 4 oz bowl feeders for the winter months, which I replace one by one so the birds have a chance to get used to them. I highly recommend them because they don’t leak, they are easy to clean, and it is easy to keep the nectar fluid when the temperature drops below zero if you are willing to buy a Waterproof Seedling Heat Mat (mine is Vivosun) or the Hummer Hearth Hummingbird Feeder Heater, both available from Amazon, or make your own heaters.
The bowl feeders can be placed on a seedling mat if you have a bench or a high surface to put them on in a sheltered area. They keep the feeder about 10 degrees above ambient temperature. We have found they are pretty much fool proof if you cut a strip of pipe insulation just wide enough to cover the sides of the bowl (17.25” X 1.25” for the 8 oz feeder), tape it in a ring, place it on the Mat and put your feeder in it (see preceding photo). I have occasionally seen the birds sit right on the mat when it gets very cold out. The nice thing about the mat is you can put any size bowl feeder on it and it will accommodate more than 1 feeder. I splurged and spent $50 on the Hummer Hearth Heater as well, which works nicely with a 4 oz bowl feeder. It is simply a red plastic cup with a 4 or 5 watt bulb in it that hooks onto the feeder perch with plastic hooks. Since I keep quite a few feeders going in the winter (my birds don’t share), I was motivated to find a cost-effective way of making my own heaters. After a few trials, my favourite one is made out of styrofoam bowls from the dollar store and they work very well all winter. Once you get the hang of it, they are quick, easy, and cheap to make and are very effective. The instructions for making your own are at the end of this article. Keep Feeding Ports Free Even when you manage to keep the nectar liquid at sub zero temperatures, it is challenging to keep the feeding ports from blocking or freezing or both. I have domes that provide a shelter from above for most of my winter feeders. When there is no wind, this works really well. However, if the wind is forceful, they can be a liability as they can cause the whole feeding assembly to wind up on the ground.
Hummingbirds often visit our gardens for food and water, and they sometimes choose to display and breed there too. The hummingbirds that visit our gardens are generalists with respect to food. This means that they use many different resources rather than being part of a specialized partnership, which can be seen with some tropical hummingbirds.
Flower nectar is an important source of sugar and hummingbirds will try out most flowers. Long-blooming plants can be particularly helpful, such as fuchsias (hardy varieties can go well into the fall). Similarly, good value comes from some early/late bloomers (e.g., rosemary, viburnum), especially if you have winter-resident Anna's hummingbirds. In spring and summer, hummingbirds enjoy many common garden flowers including columbines, fox glove, penstemon, salvia, iris and honeysuckle. Hummingbird favourites also include exotics that evolved with other nectarivores (e.g., sunbirds), such as red-hot pokers, angel's fishing rods and crocosmia.
Hummingbirds eat (and feed their chicks) a wide variety of small, soft-bodied insects. Avoiding plants or seeds treated with pesticides will help general insect biodiversity (and hummingbird food supply) greatly. As many of these insects also have aquatic larval stages, maintaining healthy wet areas/ponds is beneficial to garden diversity.
Maintaining trees in your garden can be very helpful too. Trees provide a place to perch, nest and find food. In addition of the lichen for decorating nests, many small insect prey can be hunted along their branches. Tree sap can also be an important resource for sugar when flowers aren't producing (early morning/evening). Hummingbirds will drink sap coming from holes made through the bark of trees by sap suckers. Some trees like redcedar will provide running sap all winter, while deciduous trees, like birch or maple, only start to run in the spring.
Moran AJ, Prosser SWJ, Moran JA. (2019) DNA metabarcoding allows non-invasive identification of arthropod prey provisioned to nestling Rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus).
Did you know that many bedding plants are treated with harmful pesticides that not only affect insects but also birds? We often hear about their effect on bee populations, but they can also affect any animal that depends on insects for food. If we think about our gorgeous local hummingbirds, they not only drink nectar from flowers, but also eat tiny soft-bodied insects for protein, fat and salts. These are necessary for growth, energy and also dictate the quality of the feathers that the birds grow.
Our recent studies in agricultural areas have shown these pesticides to be present at high levels in hummingbird urine, presumably coming from contaminated plant nectar or sap, and insects that have become contaminated by feeding on these resources. The most common and problematic group of these pesticides are called neonicotinoids. Jannaca’s article explains how these pesticides work, if you would like to learn more.
Since many of the same pesticides are used in bedding plants, you might consider starting your flowers from seed purchased from a bona fide organic seed company, or obtain pesticide-free, organic bedding plants from a nursery. It’s healthier for you, your garden, and the birds, bees and butterflies!