Feeding Hummingbirds

April 20, 2009
rufous hummingbird at nectar feeder Photo by Lois Miller/Cornell Lab.
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It’s easy to make hummingbird food with just table sugar and water. We’ll tell you all you need to know:

Use table sugar rather than honey to make hummingbird food—when honey is diluted with water, bacteria and fungus thrive in it. The normal mixture, especially ideal during hot or dry weather, is ¼ cup of sugar per cup of water. During cold, rainy, or foggy conditions when fresh water is plentiful but birds need more energy, it’s fine to make the mixture 1/3 cup of sugar per cup of water. Concentrations of sugars in natural nectars vary within about that range.

If you mix up small quantities of sugar water every day or two, there’s no need to boil the water. But if you mix up larger batches and refrigerate part for later use, then it’s wise to make the mixture with boiling water.

Note: There’s no need to add red food color to sugar water, or to use red-colored commercial mixes. Nectar in flowers is clear, after all, and red food coloring may be harmful for hummingbirds. It’s the flowers themselves that are brightly colored, not the nectar—and that’s why hummingbird feeders typically are designed with red parts to attract the notice of hummingbirds.

What kind of feeder is best?

The two most important issues to consider in selecting hummingbird feeders are how easy they are to take apart and clean, and how large they are. Bacteria and mold grow in sugar water, and sugar ferments, so hummingbird water should never be left out for more than two or three days, and changed daily in very hot weather. The easier it is to clean a hummingbird feeder, the more likely you are to do it often and well. The fill hole should be large enough for you to be able to get a bottlebrush inside, and every crevice should be easy to scrub. The best-sized feeders are those that are emptied every day or two by the hummingbirds you have. Hummingbirds are usually extremely territorial around feeding sites, and so four tiny feeders with one feeding port each, set in different trees or at different windows, will attract and maintain more hummingbirds than one large feeder with eight ports.

Bottle or tube hummingbird feeders can be glass or plastic, often with red plastic flowers and bee guards (little plastic screens that keep insects away from the sugar solution) on the feeding ports. If the bee guards are yellow, they may, ironically, attract bees. Plastic saucer-type hummingbird feeders have feeding ports in the top, making them fairly bee-and wasp-proof. These feeders often have little moats in the center that should be filled with regular tap water—that will keep ants from climbing down the support wire or rod and getting to the sugar water.

annas hummingbird at feederAnna’s Hummingbird by Sam Wilson.

If hummingbird feeders have large enough perches, orioles, Downy Woodpeckers, Cape May Warblers, and other species may visit them. In some places, bears can be a problem if feeders are at all accessible.

Hummingbird bottle feeders tend to leak in the sun, because air trapped in the top of the bottle expands as it warms and pushes the nectar out. This doesn’t happen in tray feeders. Either way, you should avoid locating your hummingbird feeder in direct sun, which causes the sugar solution to spoil rapidly.


  • Cindy Hurd

    Thanks for the helpful article! I’ve been feeding hummers for years…not entirely the wrong way! lol

  • John Cullings

    I’ve read that hummingbirds also need protein in their diet.
    They usually get it from bugs and insects. I’ve been adding whey
    protein to my feeders, but I don’t know the proper amount. I’ve
    been using one scoop (about 1/3 cup) per gallon. That’s probably not
    enough. Does anyone know how much to use? John S.

  • Sandra Pohlman

    Will they eat it? (the protein)

  • Mikal Deese

    Rehabilitators may use whey with other ingredients to feed injured captive hummers. However that is not advisable for feeders for wild hummers, as it would quickly breed bacteria that could harm the little guys. Instead, you could put out some old fruit to attract fruit flies. Then you can watch them swoop on the flies. Do this especially during nesting season, because moms need to feed their fast growing nestlings.

  • John Cullings

    Thank you for your comments. It would be helpful if you answered my question about the quantity of whey to use. About the spoilage, I put the sugar and whey mixture out for eight hours. Is that ok for moderate temperatures? If not, how many hours would be suitable?

  • Carolyn Raymond

    Mr. Cullings, I saw the reply to your question about Whey – the reply said NOT to use it. Why would you? Whey is used for injured Hummers – if you do not have a captive Hummer, putting it in a feeder for wild Hummingbirds would likely cause a serious problem for them.

  • Linda Williams

    I live six miles south of the Canadian border, on the shore of Lake Champlain, NY. Just wondering when I could expect the arrival of migrating hummingbirds. Would like to have their feeder ready and waiting for them.

Feeding Hummingbirds