Some Notes about Hummingbird Feeders
(And how to use them to maximum advantage)
By Jon Friedman
Hummingbirds are the most popular of all backyard birds in the regions where they are found. They are unique among all birds for a variety of reasons. They provide us with joy, entertaining stimulation, color, beauty, amazing flight and the ability to hover, eat copious amounts of pesky insects, and raise families where we can observe their entire courting and mating rituals and displays. For these reasons, and others, we all enjoy attracting hummingbirds to our yards, watching them feed, nest and raise their brood. There are many ways to attract them and encourage them to nest nearby. Above all else, we always counsel our customers that the number one rule to remember with birds, and especially hummingbirds as they are such fragile animals with highly specialized needs, is to cause no harm.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about their specialized needs concerns their liquid diet. Many folks believe that almost any sweet liquid will attract hummers – and this is basically true. However, what they absolutely need to perform and function at peak ability and insure a normal life and lifespan is a complex mix of sugars that they can easily metabolize as a glucose solution. Homemade sugar (sucrose only) solutions and other commercial nectars which all contain many invisible, non-beneficial, and unnecessary ingredients (such as preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, food enhancers such as MSG, red food colors, etc.). None of these ingredients are natural or found in nature’s flower nectar and none of these added ingredients are beneficial or safe.
One chore we don’t relish is keeping the feeder clean. This is very important as our only real responsibility to the hummers is ensuring a dependable supply of fresh nectar. Having a clean feeder is critical to keeping the nectar fresh. In cooler northern tier states, nectar can stay fresh a little longer than in hotter, drier climates such as Southern Arizona. Keeping the feeder in shade as opposed to full afternoon sun will also help if the feeder is not UV stable polycarbonate (the best material on the market).
In the desert, nectar begins to spoil in a matter of a few days. We always inform our local customers to regularly change nectar every three days.
The first thing that happens when nectar is left out longer than three days is that the sugars ferment – turning to alcohol. If you let this happen it is the same as giving the hummers permission to fly drunk. This will more often than not result in fatal crashes, collisions with objects that can cause internal damage, or stunned grounded birds that are easy prey for cats and a host of other predators or dangers. (See Dangers Hummingbirds Face article in our online archive for related information.) Additionally, bacteria build-up and other contaminants will also spoil the nectar. The key thing to remember here is that bad things happen to hummingbirds that drink bad nectar.
I’ve had customers argue with me that they paid good money for their nectar and they’re going to leave it out however long until the hummingbirds drink it all up. After explaining why this is a bad policy I give them a human analogy. I explain that if they took a big gulp of milk and, before swallowing it, they feel little clumps in their mouths or the smell of the milk is sour, they will spit it out rather than continue to drink it if it has passed the expiration date and spoiled. After all, we don’t want to risk getting sick by continuing to drink it. Even if they spent their hard earned money to buy that milk! Why make a hummer drink the equivalent of spoiled milk?
Nectar that is spoiled, for any reason, is harmful to the birds. Mold or fungus growing in a hummingbird feeder is another indication that the nectar was left in the feeder way too long. Many hummers will avoid coming back to such a feeder if the nectar isn’t consistently fresh. It’s just common sense.
The Holland Hill line of feeders is very popular with the hummingbirds. Small capacity tubes insure no spoiled nectar. Window models come with perches; perches are available as an accessory for all their other models. They are handmade in Missouri using sturdy braided copper wire and glass tubes. Choose from window, hanging, or potted plant models.
Mold or fungus growing in a hummingbird feeder is another clue that the nectar needs to be changed on a regular schedule. We strongly encourage our customers to change the nectar twice a week at minimum – every three days works well throughout the year. The only exceptions to that would be in extremely hot weather of 105 degrees, or hotter, the nectar should be changed every two days. It’s always better to err in favor of hummers rather than against them. When in doubt, always choose the safer alternative. During particularly cooler winter weather, when we have several consecutive days where the daytime temperatures never exceed 75 degrees F, it would be OK to let the nectar remain in the feeder for four days – providing there’s no obvious spoiling. Fresh nectar should always look like fresh, pure water. If you see little black specks (like pepper), or strands of white material (like fine cotton or silk), or if the nectar is changing from absolutely clear to milky or cloudy – it all means the nectar has been left out too long. Don’t wait until the nectar begins to spoil before you change it. This most common of mistakes causes internal damages to our hummingbirds. It’s just as easy and cost-effective to attract and feed hummingbirds correctly as it is to do it wrong and cause harm.
We always recommend making a two-week supply of nectar so you don’t have to spend time every three days making it from scratch. It only takes a few minutes to make a batch of nectar and to rinse out the feeder. Cool nectar will remain fresh in the refrigerator for up to, but not longer, than two weeks. Once you know how much nectar the number of hummers you are feeding can drink in a single day or a three day period, you’ll know the correct amount to make for any two week period. Over the course of a year’s cycle of time, you will learn how to extrapolate up or down in ounces to accommodate for any increase or decrease in the number of hummers you feed in any given 3-day cycle.
The most common reason some folks have problems with their nectar solution, other than waiting too long to change it, is that they overfill the feeder beyond what the hummers can drink in that 3-day period. This why we suggest smaller capacity feeders for most people to use. If you have a feeder that has a greater than 8 ounce capacity, and you don’t live on a major migratory route and have dozens or more of hummers daily, you really don’t need larger capacity feeders. An ounce per day, or three ounces every three days, is easy to monitor. Within a week or so, you should be able to determine the exact amount required to feed the number of hummers that visit your feeders.
The correct ratio of nectar mix to water is also very important. We recommend a 5 to 1 ration of water to nectar mix. In extremely hot weather (105+) it is perfectly fine to give hummers a slightly more diluted solution of 6 to 1. This extra water aids in metabolizing the nectar thoroughly, quenching thirst and rehydrating their bodies in our hot and dry climate. Our nectar mix is the best and safest solution to use and even at 5 to 1, is far less sweet than plain sugar water solutions or the commercial nectars that are commonly found in stores other than ours. A 5 to 1 or 6 to 1 solution closely approximates the nectar Mother Nature supplies in nectar-producing wild flowers. If you don’t have a bee/wasp-proof feeder, or if your feeder leaks and drips, those insects will be attracted to your hummingbird feeders. The 6 to 1 formula will lessen the numbers of bees/wasps that would otherwise be attracted to it.
Don’t be tempted to attract your neighbor’s hummers to your feeders by making a stronger, less dilute solution such as 4 to 1 or 3 to 1. Most hummers get all their internal moisture needs from their nectar. The more dilute nectar recipe solutions allow enough water for metabolizing the nectar thoroughly, alleviating thirst, and rehydration of their bodies. This is especially true in our hot, dry desert climate.
Cleaning your hummingbird feeders, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t have to be an unwelcomed chore. If you do use our good nectar and change it on a three day schedule, cleaning your feeders should only take a minimum amount of time. Simply rinsing the feeder under hot water with a clean sponge or cloth should only take a matter of seconds. In instances where it was unavoidable to keep the nectar changed on schedule and keep the feeder clean (taking a vacation, etc.) you may need to do a more rigorous cleaning. In such cases, a mild soapy solution can be used. If mold or fungus is apparent, use diluted vinegar (4 parts water to 1 part vinegar) or a diluted bleach water solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach) to clean and disinfect. Whether using a mild soapy solution, vinegar or bleach – be sure to rinse very well so no residue of the cleaning solution is present when you refill your feeder with fresh nectar.
Aspects’ Hummzinger line of pan-type feeders are the superior feeders on the market. They all have: no drip, no leak, no spill bases; are insect proof (both flying and crawling bugs); are constructed of UV stable polycarbonate; can hang or be pole mounted; easy to fill and clean; have perches; come in various capacities of 8, 12 and 16 ounce models; have unconditional lifetime guarantees.
Pipe cleaners can be used to clean the actual small food ports that hummers put their beaks into. We sell the perfect product for this particular job. It’s called Perfect Little Brushes. For about $6.00 you get three mascara-type tapered brushes which do an excellent job in getting to small, hidden, or hard-to-reach areas in and around food ports. Cleaning the feeder overall is quickly accomplished using the hummingbird feeder cleaner kit we sell. It consists of two double ended brushes with four differently shaped and sized nylon bristle brushes that are designed to clean just about any feeder on the market. The fact is, this brush kit will very effectively clean about 95% of existing feeders. It does such a good job that it is the only hummingbird brush we stock for the majority of the feeders we offer for sale.
For really dirty feeders (God Forbid!) a good soaking will help loosen dried up gunk. Disassemble the feeder into its individual parts, allow each to soak in soapy, vinegar, or bleach solution for a minimum of 10-15 minutes. Rinse well with fresh clean water and then finish the job as usual.
Pan–type feeders (where the nectar is stored below the food ports) are always superior in almost all respects. They are always constructed of UV-stable polycarbonate and therefore are immune to the damaging UV rays of natural sunlight. They are scratch-proof and break-proof. They come with, in most cases, unconditional lifetime guarantees. They don’t leak, drip or spill and are the easiest to clean and refill. No brushes (other than for little food ports) are ever necessary for cleaning these type of feeder design. The nectar well is always large enough to run a clean sponge around. Pan-type feeders are; not only easy to clean and maintain, bee and wasp proof; drip, leak and spill-proof; pole mountable (for extra stability) as well as hanging; and have lifetime guarantees.
The Dr. JB’s line of gravity-fed feeders offers extra thick durable materials, wide mouth bottles for easy filling and cleaning, a base with perches, removable food ports for easy cleaning (and easy access for nectar eating bats), bee/wasp-proof, and a variety of bottle sizes that all fit the standard base. They are available in 16, 32, 48, and 80 ounce capacities.
Vacuum operated or gravity-fed hummingbird feeders designs are inferior to pan-type feeders. They can easily be distinguished from pan-type feeders as their storage reservoir for nectar is located above the food ports. Even with a good set of brushes some of the poorer designs of this type (ones we don’t sell) are still hard to clean thoroughly. Their design may have little nooks and crannies that a brush may not effectively reach. In cases such as this, we’ll usually recommend a new, easier to use feeder to permanently solve the problem. Otherwise, using sand and water as a cleaning solution will usually scour the complete inside of almost any feeder. By vigorously shaking the feeder, the sand (which is very abrasive by nature) will get into those nooks and crannies and scour the inside of the feeder very well.
Strategic location of hummingbird feeders enables the backyard birder to increase the number of hummingbirds and the number of species of hummingbirds that can be attracted to your feeders. For those who put out only a single feeder, it’s important to realize that the number of hummers attracted will be limited. However, it can be located anywhere it’s best for the viewer’s pleasure. Given no choice, hummers will take nectar wherever and whenever the opportunity arises.
For those who want to increase the number of hummers and nectar visits, simply having multiple feeders and carefully considering where to locate them will draw considerably more hummers. This strategy is effective in combating the fierce territoriality of adult males in particular. Occasionally adult females will claim a feeder as their own private nectar supply and not allow any other hummers to use “their feeder”. However, this type of aggressive behavior is usually more prominently displayed by adult males. In most cases, when multiple hummers are sharing a single feeder together, their group is usually composed of adult females and juveniles of either sex.
Jon’s Hummingbird feeders are made by and for The Wild Bird Store exclusively. They feature no-drip glass bottles in several colors, recycled Spanish glass, hand-crafted copper tendrils, and come in a variety of sizes from 3.5 to 13 ounces.
Utilizing this strategic location approach will eliminate much of the possessive rivalry, especially between adult males. This concept involves two parts. Part one is locating the feeders in such a manner that any male hummer using any given feeder cannot see the other feeders. This exemplifies “out of sight, out of mind” and prevents that individual hummer from the urge to drive away other potential competitors. If you have four hanging feeders evenly spaced on a 60 foot porch, in a single line, and at the same height above ground level; a single male hummer at either of the end feeders, or at any of the feeders, can sight down the line and see and guard all of them at once. He’ll therefore claim possession of all of them and not allow any other hummers to use them. We’ve all seen this scenario play out.
If you take the same number of feeders (four) and locate one on the north side of your house, one on the east, one on the south and one on the west side of your house - you‘ve now located the feeders in such a manner that any adult male at any of the four feeders cannot see and therefore cannot guard them all. That territorial hummer will be satisfied with just “his” feeder. While he is using and guarding “his” feeder, the opportunity for multiple other hummers (usually adult females and juveniles) to share the other feeders comes about.
Height above ground level plays an important role in allowing multiple species to use any given feeder better than another. Most species prefer certain flowers within their normal habitat and range. In fact, the differences between species’ bill length, width, and degree of curvature have co-evolved with their flower preferences. (See out website of previously published articles to find the article Hummingbird Bills and Tongues.) Not all hummers can access the same nectar from the same flowers. Each hummingbird species has co-evolved with certain flower species thereby allowing all hummers to feed without always competing with all other hummers. And, naturally, certain nectar-producing flower species grow at different elevations above ground level. So, staggering the heights of the four feeders that surround the four sides of your house enables more species of hummingbirds to utilize each feeder.
For example, if the feeder on the north side of the house is pole or dowel mounted so it’s only about a foot above ground level, and the next feeder around the corner is another foot or two higher, and so on with each of the four feeders separated by at least one foot in elevation from the previous one – each feeder will claim its own unique distance above ground level. Given such choices, each species will find the feeder that is most familiar in height to them. If Calliope Hummingbirds prefer flowers that are normally only found at ground level, they will also utilize the feeders that are found at that elevation. Conversely, if Rufous or Magnificent Hummingbirds prefer flowers usually found in trees, considerably higher than ground level, the highest feeder will probably be the one those species prefer. Mid-level feeders will attract other common species, such as Anna’s or Costa’s.
So, for those who want both more numbers of hummers and more species of hummingbirds, strategic location of feeders becomes a method to rely on better than simply putting out multiple feeders in close proximity to one another.
Understanding basic hummingbird behavior and dietary needs goes a long way in establishing, maintaining, and nurturing rewarding relationships with our backyard hummers.
John Dennis, the noted author of many bird books and articles, has compiled a list of at least 70 other species which are known to be attracted to the sweet nectar in hummingbird feeders. From that list I have gleaned a smaller list of birds that can be seen at Southern Arizona hummingbird feeders. If you notice a species feeding from your hummer feeder that we have not noted here, please let us know. It should also be noted that in our region it is time to begin watching for nectar-eating bats who frequently find (and drain) hummingbird feeders in their nightly foraging quests. (Again, see our website archive for several related nectar-eating bat articles.)
The following birds all reside in our region and could be sighted at your hummingbird feeders: