One of the delights of summer is watching the hummingbird feeder through the kitchen window. Now that mating season is over and the young have fledged, there's less fighting and the males are (usually) content to share the feeder with the females and young birds. In the early morning and at dusk, all ten feeding stations are usually occupied, with a hummer or two waiting for a seat. A quart-sized feeder gets emptied in about one day. In early spring, and after the main migration in the fall, I use a smaller feeder. I used to have multiple feeding places, but they got too hard to keep up with!
Want to put up a feeder? Here are some things to think about:
Hummingbird feeders must be kept clean of insects and mold, so a good feeder should come apart easily. There shouldn't be any parts with openings too small to get a bottle brush in, or you are in for a terrible time cleaning! This is the most important consideration when selecting a feeder.
Feeders need to be cleaned any time there is evidence of mold. In the cool weather, this may be once a week; in the heat of the summer, it may be every day. If you are not ready to clean the feeders, it would be best not to set one up, since contamination in the nectar can make hummingbirds sick. Boiling or sterilizing the sugar water will not stop contamination, since the hummingbirds bring it in themselves on their tongues.
How to clean? The best way is with baking soda or a mild dish soap (not detergent), rinsing thoroughly. A bottle brush or old toothbrush is handy for getting around the edges. After cleaning with baking soda, a little apple cider vinegar will cause the remaining baking soda to foam, while the vinegar helps sterilize the feeder parts.
Hummingbirds live on small insects like aphids, spiders, and "no-see-ums", but larger insects can be a threat to them. Bee and wasp stings can be fatal, so hummers will avoid a feeder when these insects are present. Large spiders and preying mantises will catch and eat hummers, so the feeders need to be kept away from their hiding places! Ants are not a problem per se, but they tend to drown inside the feeders.
Ant guards and bee guards will eliminate most problems. Ant guards are barriers filled with oil, water, or insecticide, that hang between the feeder and the line, stopping ants from forming a trail to the feeder. Some feeders with large, artificial flowers will attract bees and wasps, and these need bee guards (thimble-like objects made of mesh) that fit over the nectar holes. These prevent bees from reaching the nectar, while allowing the hummers, with their long tongues, to lap it up. Most new feeders eliminate this problem by replacing the flowers with a small slit opening. Hummingbirds have excellent sight, and will find the opening, but bees and wasps usually do not.
My two biggest pests are orioles and woodpeckers. I love both birds, just not on the hummer feeders! In addition to scaring away all of the hummers, their weight tends to tip the feeder sideways allowing a stream of nectar to pour out. This wastes nectar and attracts ants. The orioles are around for only a week or two in spring and fall, but the downy woodpeckers are a perpetual nuisance. Last year I had a couple of nice feeders with removable drinking ports, which made them easy to clean. The woodpeckers thoughtthe ports hindered their ability to get to the nectar, so they systematically pulled them out and flung then out into the yard. This year, I switched to feeders with permanently attached drinking ports. I also put a weather dome over the feeder. It isn't there for weather, since the feeder hangs under the eaves of the back porch roof, but the dome makes it harder for the woodpeckers to drop down from the roof onto the feeder.
A couple of years ago, I looked out my kitchen window and could have sworn that there was a tabby cat hanging from the hummer feeder. It took my foggy brain (it was before my first cup of morning coffee) a couple of seconds to resolve the image into a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Fortunately for me, it was not planning to take up permanent residence in my yard, and left after a couple of days of being sprayed with the kitchen sink spray nozzle. The hummingbirds seemed relieved!
Those tiny feeders that hold 3-4 ounces of nectar look cute, and how much nectar can a hummer or two eat in a day? Around my house, one of those feeders would be empty in less than an hour. If you live in an urban area, with hummingbirds only dropping by occasionally, these small feeders could be just right. On the other hand, if you have a lot of hummingbirds, any feeder that holds less than 10 ounces is a waste of time. Get a larger capacity feeder (some hold a half-gallon!) and don't fill it with more nectar than the hummingbirds will drink in 2 days (one day in hot weather.) As your feeder attracts more birds, you will be happy for the larger size.
There's a smaller (8 to 14 oz.) feeder that sticks to a window with suction cups. This is a great choice if you want to get up close to the birds as they feed. You can stand next to a window with the feeder on the outside, and the birds will simply ignore you. (They see you, but they also see the window.) The biggest problem with these, aside from their small size, is that ants will find the feeders unless you put a barrier of some kind around the window. These feeders may also blow off in high winds.
Hummingbirds will check out anything that is brightly colored, so feeders do not have to be red. A favorite old feeder around my house was purple with yellow feeding ports. Once the birds have found a feeder, they will return to it. If they seem to be having trouble finding it, place bright ribbons or foil on the line holding the feeder (or in the window for a window feeder) to attract their attention. Please do not add red food coloring to the nectar, or buy prepared nectar that is colored. There have been no extensive studies to show that the dye is harmful, but a hummingbird's kidneys are tiny, and do not have to handle dyes in nature, since flower nectar is colorless. Why put something in that serves no purpose and may be harmful to the birds? And many red dyes contains propylene glycol - antifreeze. Hummingbirds migrate in the cold weather, so they don't need antifreeze!
Other stuff to know
When to hang the feeder:
Put up your feeders a few days before hummingbirds are expected to arrive in your area, so they have some "quick energy" after their long flight. If you don't know when they arrive in your area, check the migration maps. Hummingbirds will return to the area they inhabited the year before, and will look for "their" feeders. If you are late hanging the feeders, you may see hummingbirds hovering where the feeder had been the year before.
Take the feeders down after the first frost in your area. It is a myth that keeping feeders up encourages hummers to stay rather than migrate. Migration is triggered by day-length, not availability of food. Keeping feeders up and filled in the fall will help the migrating birds with quick energy for their flight.
What goes in the feeder:
Nectar is a mix of one part pure cane sugar to four parts boiling (or otherwise purified) water. Experts say that you may use tap water if you drink it yourself. There's no need to boil the water if it is drinkable - just add the sugar and make sure it is dissolved completely. Nothing else should be added. Never use any sugar substitute, since these lack the carbohydrates the birds need for fuel. Never use honey, because it harbors a mold that will kill the hummingbirds. Do not vary the ratio - a weaker mix will be ignored by the birds in favor of flower nectar, and a stronger mix has too little water for proper kidney function. Don't buy commercially prepared mixes, because these are a waste of money, and most contain red dye. Some special mixes contain added nutrients, and these may be of use to wildlife specialists caring for sick or over-wintering birds. For the average home user, they are not needed. The hummingbirds get all of the nutrients they need from the insects they eat. They only get energy from the nectar, and the 1-to-4 mix is very close to natural flower nectar.
Should I buy a feeder with perches?
Some people like to watch the birds hover as they drink from the feeders, so they eliminate perches. On the other hand, it helps the birds conserve energy if they can sit on a perch while feeding, and I would recommend feeders with perches. At first light the hummingbirds are in torpor from the long night without food. The ones that show up at my feeders look a lot like I do before my first shot of coffee - a little groggy! They will sit on a perch for 10 minutes, slowing sipping their morning energy boost, before flying off. There's usually a waiting line for perches, and the birds will sometimes share a perch with offspring or siblings, especially first thing in the morning.
Don't want to bother with a feeder?
There are lots of plants that attract hummingbirds. Basically, any flowering plant that produce nectar will be visited by hummingbirds, but they especially like tubular flowers. Some plants loved by hummingbirds: bee balm, sage, hollyhock, fuscia, columbine, nicotiana, petunia, gladiolus, butterfly weed, cardinal flower, lupine, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, campsis, morning glory, lilac, quince, wiegela, azalia, butterfly bush, silk trees (mimosa) and flowering locust.
Remember that hummingbirds live on small insects, not just nectar. Overspraying with toxic insecticides will leave the hummers with no food source, and they will not stay in your area, even with abundant nectar feeders.
This article was previously published to Epinions and Gather by the author (that would be me!)