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If any bird can bring a little bit of whimsical fairy magic to a garden, it is undoubtedly the hummingbird who flits between flowers like a bejewelled dancer. To attract these tiny birds to a feeder, it’s necessary to understand how to “speak their language” and create a hummingbird haven.
Hummingbirds are attracted to feeders that are:
- Consistently filled with fresh nectar
- Filled with 25% sugar solutions
- Red and kept sparkling clean
- Found in a hummingbird-friendly garden
- Near a good water source
- Easy to see and safe
- Widely spaced to reduce competition
Wild birds cannot be coerced or forced into interactions; instead, they must be enticed by appealing to their needs.
Birders who understand the feeding, nesting and territorial behaviors of hummingbirds can use their knowledge to create an oasis for their little hummingbird friends; the more appealing the hummingbird paradise, the more they will visit the birder’s hummingbird feeder.
Choosing the Best Feeder Style for the Local Hummingbirds
Hummingbird feeders are divided into categories based on their:
- Refill method
- The material used in construction
Are Different Shapes of Feeders Available?
The two most common feeders are saucer feeders and inverted feeders, also known as vacuum feeders.
The saucer feeders are relatively simple in design. The nectar is placed in a shallow bowl and covered with a lid; the hummingbirds access the nectar via feeding ports.
The second type of hummingbird feeder is the inverted feeder. The inverted feeder is a tubular container that, when turned upside down, suspends the liquid in the container, only releasing small amounts of nectar when the hummingbirds access the nectar via ports.
The liquid is suspended by the vacuum of negative air pressure created when the container is inverted.
In saucer feeders, ports are located on the upper surface of the feeder, whereas in inverted feeders, ports are located at the base of the structure.
Each of the feeders has pros and cons. Inverted feeders are the easiest to clean and refill but may be prone to nectar-leaks due to:
- Elemental effects, e.g., warm weather causing expansion of the container and loss of vacuum
- Improperly fitted feeding ports
- Low nectar levels are caused by birds consuming it or due to the wind swinging the feeder, causing nectar to spill out.
Nectar leaks will result in more insect visitors, which in turn cause hummingbirds to vacate the area.
Saucer feeders, by contrast, are often harder to clean and need more refills (due to a smaller nectar reservoir capacity) but rarely leak.
Different species of hummingbirds prefer different types of feeders. Ask your local bird enthusiasts which shape feeders are the most attractive to the local hummingbird population.
Feeder Refill Method
Saucer feeders and inverted feeders may be filled from the bottom or top, depending on their design. The refill method makes little difference to the hummingbirds, and thus the best refill method is determined by the birder’s preference, i.e., ease of cleaning and refilling.
Some feeders are equipped with perches while others are not.
Hummingbirds do not need to find a handy perch to feed; after all, flowers do not feature designated hummingbird resting spots! However, if a resting site is available, a hummingbird will use it.
Feeders with perches encourage hummingbirds to sit longer while feeding; the longer they sit still, the easier it is for birders to identify them. However, other larger birds may compete with hummingbirds for this prime real estate.
Birders who have a free-for-all attitude towards birding may be happy to see multiple bird species visiting their feeders. In contrast, birders who are exclusively focused on attracting hummingbirds to their feeders should stick with perch-less feeders.
Material Used in Construction
Most feeders are made from either glass or plastic. Plastic feeders weigh less (making mounting easier) and are often cheaper than glass feeders.
However, plastic feeders are more likely to warp, break or develop a rough surface if exposed to the elements for multiple seasons. In addition, to better durability, glass feeders are more hygienic and easier to clean as they’re less porous than most types of plastic.
Does the Color of the Feeder Matter?
Most birders advocate the use of predominantly red feeders as hummingbirds appear to be more attracted to this color. A 2015 study revealed a fascinating reason underpinning the hummingbirds’ preference for red.
Initially, researchers believed that hummingbirds preferred red flowers as they are nectar-rich flowers and more easily detected by the fast-moving hummingbird. A hummingbird’s eye primarily features red and yellow cones that facilitate the detection of colors on the red spectrum while muting the colors on the blue spectrum.
The second hypothesis, which was tested, investigated the color preferences of bees, as high-bee traffic flowers are less favorable to hummingbirds.
The researchers discovered that while the hummingbirds visited both red and white flowers at an equal rate in a bee-free environment, they preferentially chose the red flowers when bees were present.
Bees can distinguish between red and white flowers but show distinct red-avoidance behaviors due to the sensory aversion caused by red pigmentation. Thus, the bees preferred the white flowers, leaving the red flowers open for the hummingbirds.
This experiment proved that the hummingbirds’ attraction to red is less about “red preferences” and more about “bee avoidance”.
Size Matters, Bigger Is Not Always Better
In a consumer-driven market, everyone wants more “bang for their buck”, we are all trying to stretch our money as far as possible, leading to the motto: bigger is better.
However, in the world of the miniature hummingbird, bigger is not always better. The feed type placed in the feeder must be fresh; hummingbirds will quickly abandon a feeder with moldy or spoiled nectar.
Although nectar and sugar water have a longer shelf life when kept in the fridge, they spoil relatively quickly when placed in a feeder.
- Nectar needs to be replaced every 5 to 7 days.
- Sugar water should be replaced every 10 to 14 days.
Birders who supply more nectar than the visiting hummingbirds will consume will end up throwing out significant amounts of spoiled nectar. To reduce wastage, it is better to start with a smaller feeder and gradually increase the size or number of feeders, according to the number of hummingbirds visiting the feeders and garden.
Initially, fewer hummingbirds will visit, but as the birder creates a better hummingbird-friendly garden, more and more hummingbirds will visit.
Feeders range in size from 8 oz (237 ml) to 40 oz (1183 ml). Always start with a smaller feeder (e.g., the 8 oz version) and add more small feeders or buy bigger feeders as needed.
Although smaller feeders can be time-consuming as they need to be refilled more often, they remain the preferred choice for hummingbird enthusiasts as they reduce wastage.
Multiple Feeders Reduce Competition
All experienced birders know that hummingbirds are fierce defenders of what they consider “theirs”, and as relatively aggressive feeders, hummingbirds often display territorial behavior around feeders.
Alaine Camfield studied the territorial behavior of two species of hummingbirds with regards to feeders. The two hummingbird species studied were the Broad-Tailed hummingbird (Selasphorous platycercus) and the Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorous platycerous); both are migratory birds spending part of their year in Colorado (where the study was conducted).
Alaine studied the effect of glucose concentration in the nectar solution (i.e., 10%, 20% and 30%) on the territorial behavior of the two species.
The study revealed that the Broad-Tailed hummingbird displaced the Rufous hummingbird in areas with fewer feeders or more nutrient-rich nectar solutions. Both species were more willing to engage in chases, chip calling and hovering if the feeder was filled with a 30% solution.
It is clear that hummingbirds are more willing to defend a high-value resource. The resource (i.e., feeder) is regarded as higher value if:
- There are fewer resources
- The nectar solution is more energy rich
Competition between hummingbirds can be reduced by:
- Increasing the number of feeders; using multiple smaller feeders is better than using a single large feeder.
- Distributing the feeders throughout the garden; the more widely spaced the feeders are, the less the hummingbirds will fight to defend a particular spot.
- Feeders with more ports allow more hummingbirds to access a single feeder at the same time.
Location, Location, Location – Choosing the Best Spot
Hummingbird feeders can be hung from awnings, mounted on stands, attached to the window or suspended from a tree. However, not every potential feeder spot is a good location for hummingbird feeders.
Choosing the best location for your feeder is critical for attracting hummingbirds. There are a few guidelines that can assist a hummingbird enthusiast in picking the ideal spot for the feeder:
- Easy to see
- Safe from predators
- Reduce Competition
- Viewing potential
Easy to See
Hummingbirds won’t come to a feeder they can’t see. While hummingbirds have excellent vision, even they will have trouble identifying a feeder tucked into a deep overhang or hidden away under a heavily shaded tree branch.
Using feeders with plenty of red is a good start but positioning it among other red items (ideally a flower bed with lots of red flowers) will pique the passing hummingbird’s interest. Once the curious hummingbird approaches this glorious array of red flowers, they will easily spot the feeder.
Safe from Predators
Few animals are crazy enough to voluntarily choose to dine amid their enemies (i.e., predators intent on eating them) unless forced. Hummingbirds do not fall into the “crazy” category and so will stay away from predator infested feeders unless they’re starving.
Placing your feeder high above the ground is a simple means of ensuring cats and other pets can’t snatch the hummingbirds out of the air. It is also essential to avoid placing the feeder near any roof overhangs, branches, walls or other perches that cats can use to bring themselves up to the level of the feeder.
While the feeder should be high enough to protect the hummingbirds from cats and other predators, it should not be so high that the hummingbird enthusiast can’t reach the feeder.
Typically, birders should clean the feeder and replace the nectar at least once a week; however, the frequency may be more depending on the size of the feeder and the number of hummingbirds using the feeder.
Just as convenience is essential for refilling the feeder with fresh nectar, shade is necessary for extending the shelf-life of nectar in feeders.
The nectar will quickly go off if the feeder is placed in full sun. A lightly shaded area allows the hummingbirds to easily spot the feeder while keeping the nectar fresh for longer.
Hummingbirds are territorial, and their aversion to sharing is so strong that they would instead abandon a feeder than share it with larger birds.
Placing the hummingbird feeder away from seed feeders will limit the number of large birds sharing space with the hummingbird.
Most hummingbird enthusiasts use feeders as a means of attracting hummingbirds to their yard for their viewing pleasure. The object of the hummingbird feeder is somewhat defeated if the feeder is placed in an obscure, out-of-the-way corner of the garden.
Choosing a location that allows you to view the hummingbirds from a comfortable spot (i.e., a garden bench, kitchen or deck) is critical to enjoying the hummingbirds visiting your feeder.
Hummingbirds are nimble little birds who hover when feeding from a perch-less feeder or flower. Placing the feeder in an area of dense foliage is not ideal for hummingbirds who risk colliding with branches.
Always place the feeder far enough away from windows to prevent hummingbirds from flying into the window. During high-speed chases, hummingbirds often fly into windows (which they can’t see) and fall to the ground, stunned.
A grounded hummingbird is exceptionally vulnerable to predators, i.e., cats, dogs, predatory rodents etc.
When to Hang Your Feeder
With over 300 species of hummingbirds, it can be tricky knowing when to hang your hummingbird feeder. Too early, and you’re going to be waiting in vain for the hummingbirds while your nectar slowly spoils, too late, and the hummingbirds will bypass your yard for a more reliable feed source.
General guidelines suggest that birders located in:
- Southern USA hang their feeders anytime between mid-February and early March
- Central USA hang their feeders between mid-March and early April
- Northern USA hang their feeders between late April and early May
Most hummingbirds’ summer migration will see them flying across the USA, starting in a Southerly position and flying North.
Researching the local hummingbird species’ migratory habits will provide the best information on when you can expect them to start arriving. Be aware the climate has a significant impact on the hummingbirds’ migration.
The hummingbird’s migration will often be delayed in areas that are experiencing abnormal or unexpected weather patterns.
Freshness and Consistency Keep the Hummingbirds Coming Back
Nectar, which has gone off, is not only unpalatable to hummingbirds but potentially life-threatening. Nectars with prolific bacterial growth or feeders contaminated with mold are hazards to the hummingbirds.
Nectar should be replaced every day or every two days in feeders placed in the sun, while nectar in feeders placed in the shade should be replaced every 4 to 5 days.
Many birders claim that sugar solutions can last 10 to 14 days before spoiling while nectar lasts 5 to 7 days. These statistics are valid IF the conditions are ideal; however, if the weather is warmer or more humid than expected, the solution used in the feeder will spoil much quicker.
A good habit to establish is checking on the feeder daily. A quick visual assessment of the liquid’s clarity provides critical information regarding its freshness.
Liquid which is murky or cloudy, and feeders which have mold growth anywhere along their structure should be removed and thoroughly cleaned and refilled before being hung outside again.
When cleaning a feeder, take it apart and thoroughly clean all surfaces using a solution of vinegar and water.
Avoid using soap, bleach or other detergents; even when rinsed, the bleach or other chemicals leave a fine residue on the feeder. While this residue is undetectable to humans, it affects the nectar’s taste and can be dangerous for hummingbirds if mixed with the nectar.
Consistency Is Rewarded with Loyalty
Hummingbirds are creatures of habit; they will return year after year to the same yard and even the same feeder if they know that:
- The nectar is always fresh and thus a quality feed source
- The feeder is consistently filled with nectar and therefore is a reliable feed source
Hummingbirds store the location of good quality and reliable feeders in their memory, and even though they leave the area during winter, they will pull a Terminator “I’ll be back” every spring and summer.
What Are the Best Nectar Recipes?
Commercial nectar solutions are available; however, most hummingbird enthusiasts prefer to make homemade nectar.
Homemade nectar is ridiculously easy to make and consists of mixing 4-parts water to every 1-part sugar, i.e., for every 4 cups of water, mix in 1 cup of white sugar.
There is significant debate among the avid hummingbird birders as to whether boiling the water before adding the sugar is necessary or not. Some people claim that it works to:
- Sterilize the water and remove contaminants, thus making it safer for the hummingbirds and less likely to ferment
- Speed up the process of making the nectar as the sugar dissolves more easily in boiling water than in cold water
Whereas other birders say, they never boil the water as hummingbirds do not live in a sterile environment. So, the first hummingbird to drink from the feeder will insert its non-sterile beak into the portal, thus nullifying the purpose of sterilizing the water.
The second point is valid, BUT the time gained in making the solution is often lost while waiting for the sugar solution to cool down; it is not advisable to put hot nectar into the feeder.
When making the sugar solution, it is vital to NEVER USE ANY SWEETENER EXCEPT FOR WHITE SUGAR. Honey, molasses and artificial sweeteners are dangerous for hummingbirds, and in certain circumstances, are lethal.
Many novice birders remember the advice that hummingbirds are attracted to red and are tempted to add red food coloring to their nectar solution – DO NOT DO THIS. Red dyes often contain additives that are harmful to hummingbirds.
The red on the feeder and surrounding red flowers are sufficient to attract a flock of hummingbirds.
Thirsty Hummingbirds Look for Water Not Nectar
Hummingbirds need to eat regularly; some scientists have documented hummingbirds eating 8 meals per hour! However, as much as hummingbirds are dependent on food for survival, they are also reliant on water.
Ensuring hummingbirds have access to water near the feeder will encourage them to remain in the vicinity of the feeder between feeds.
Hummingbirds prefer light sprays of moving water; sprinkler systems, drip irrigation, fountains, misters and ornamental waterfalls are ideal water sources for hummingbirds. Not only can they get a much-needed drink, but they can also enjoy flitting between the sparkling drops of water.
Most larger birds, enjoying bathing and drinking from birdbaths or deep basins of water; but with a body length of 2” to 8” (5 cm to 20 cm) and a weight of 0.07 oz to 0.7 oz (2 g to 20 g), standard birdbaths are not an option for hummingbirds unless modified.
The create a hummingbird-inclusive birdbath, rocks and pebbles can be placed on the bottom of a standard birdbath to create a shallow basin of water suited for the petite hummingbirds.
Plant Your Garden Wisely
Hummingbirds prefer feeders located in hummingbird friendly gardens. The perfect hummingbird oasis should include:
- Plenty of red and orange flowers, particularly red flowers with a tubular shape
- Adequate perching spots for tired hummingbirds to find rest and shelter
- Protected nesting sites where hummingbirds can lay their eggs and successfully raise their young
- Plants that attract insects; hummingbirds supplement their predominantly sugar-based diet with insects, tree sap and nectar from flowers
How to Keep Your Feeder Insect-Free
Hummingbirds enjoy a similar taste preference to many insects, including bees, wasps and ants, among others. While a few insects are unlikely to deter the voracious hummingbird, too many insects will chase the hummingbirds away.
It can be tricky addressing the insect problem without inadvertently harming the hummingbird. A few techniques that are effective in safely managing the unwanted insect invasion of hummingbird feeders are listed here.
However, a few insects are expected and should not be a cause for concern; in fact, the hummingbirds may thank you as they get their daily protein by eating some of these pesky insects!
Understanding the ethology (i.e., behavior) and physiological needs is critical to successfully attracting hummingbirds to the feeder. The points covered in this article are typically easy to follow and have reasonable success rates.