General Hummingbird Feeding Rules

Where do I place my feeder?

There are a few things to keep in mind when placing your feeders. First of all, the feeders need to be where the birds can find them—near flowering plants is an ideal starting point. Second, the feeders need to be where you can see them, enjoy them, and easily access them for filling and cleaning. Third, the feeders should be out of direct sunlight to slow the fermentation process. Last, once the birds are tuned into your feeders, you can move them in short steps to a more advantageous position.

Hummingbirds remember a reliable food source—even from year to year. Ask any veteran hummer host and she will be happy to tell you how her male hummingbird returns every spring and hovers in the exact spot where the feeder was last summer.

How often should I clean my feeders?

That’s like asking, “How often should I shower or brush my teeth?” The answer is, as often as necessary. But there’s no such thing as cleaning your feeders too much. In areas with daily summer temperatures above about 75 degrees F, feeders should be cleaned every two to three days. If your region has hotter ambient temperatures or your feeders get a lot of direct sunlight, clean them more frequently. Warm soapy water with a bit of gunk-scrubbing should do the trick. Some folks prefer to use white vinegar.

When should I feed hummingbirds?

Some regions of North America host hummingbirds all year long, so residents there can put the feeder up now and never take it down—except to refill and clean it, of course! Some people may be concerned that leaving a feeder up will prevent hummingbirds from migrating in the fall. This is a myth. Hummingbirds (and all migratory birds) have an internal “clock” that tells them when to migrate. No healthy hummingbird would ever stick around just because you’ve left your feeder up in the fall. However, late migrants, young and inexperienced birds, and hummers that are not completely healthy may be helped by the presence of your feeder, especially in areas where blooming flowers are scarce in fall and early winter.

How important are feeders?

Hummingbird feeders are not vital to the survival of our native hummingbird species. At best they are an additional food source—after nectar-producing flowers—for hummingbirds. Nectar-producing flowering plants and flying insects are always going to be the most important food sources for hummingbirds. The two possible exceptions would be during periods of bad weather, when a late spring or early fall snow covers flowering plants and stops insect activity, and when a vagrant hummingbird shows up in winter at a nectar feeder. In such cases, a clean feeder filled with fresh nectar can make all the difference for a bird’s survival.

As feeding and gardening for hummers has grown in popularity, more and more vagrant hummingbirds are being found in the East, Southeast, and in the Gulf Coast states. Each winter there are reports of western hummingbirds of several species spending the winter in places where they should not be. While you might be tempted to call these birds “lost,” in fact they are merely players in nature’s grand scheme of survival. If their internal compass directs them to migrate east in the fall instead of south, and they survive the winter in, say, Huntington, West Virginia, and return to breed the following spring in the West, their offspring may possess the same internal navigation differences. Over time, this is how species expand their range, through trial and error and survival of the fittest. There are hummingbird researchers who feel that the increasing numbers of overwintering rufous hummingbirds in the eastern half of the U.S. are a direct result of the increased presence of hummingbird feeders and hardy blooming plants in human-altered landscapes. It’s an interesting phenomenon to ponder.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jan van orsow

    Hi, I live in central Oregon where the winters are cold, currently about 17 degrees. I have never had a hummingbird stay this long and I have one now. I have kept the feeders going but they freeze quite quickly. How well can the bird survive in these temperatures? Is there something wrong perhaps and he didn’t migrate?
    Jan van orsow

    • Hi Jan, Yikes! As long as it has a reliable source of food, it is possible the hummingbird will stay and survive all winter long. It will go into a state of torpor (sort of like short-term hibernation) at night, and eat all day. Feathers are great insulators, and hummingbirds can survive freezing temperatures as long as they can find food. Who knows why it didn’t migrate. I assume it is a hatch-year bird, and it just is slow to figure things out. I’ve known some folks who hosted hummingbirds well into frigid January, and in once case, even into February. In all cases, the people provided fresh nectar in small amounts every hour or two, from dawn till dusk. Some hung an incandescent light bulb near the feeder, so the bird would have a warm spot, and that helped the nectar stay thawed (and a bit warm). If the bird were injured or ill, it probably wouldn’t have survived this long. If it does disappear, we’ll probably never know whether it finally headed south, or died. So, I encourage you to keep providing thawed sugar-water as long as it comes. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • carroll thibodeaux

    I have four feeders. I have counted up to twenty birds at one time.
    Using the experts information that you can multiply what you see by six it works out to be 120 birds that I am feeding.
    I don’t know if this accurate but I’m putting out two to four quarts of sweet water per day.
    I use the four to one mixture.
    The first birds arrived in mid August.

  • Jan zoerhof

    Hi I live in mid west Michigan and I was wondering how long to leave the hummingbird feeder’s out in the fall? Jan

    • Bird Watcher’s Digest

      Hi Jan, If you’re up to the effort, it’s helpful to stragglers if you leave your hummingbird feeders up well into the winter, taking them in at night after the temps dip into the freezing range. And if not, it’s still helpful to stragglers if you leave your feeders up into October. I once had a regular at my feeder until Halloween. Providing sugar water well into the fall DOES NOT delay migration. Their instincts will tell them when to head south—after they’ve packed on enough weight to make that long journey. Here in southern Ohio, the 1/2 cup of sugar water I put out a week ago hasn’t changed levels, and is starting to turn cloudy. When I get home from work tonight, I’ll replace it, and I expect to dump it all in a week. But you never know, maybe a straggler will pass by, and I’d be happy to help it out for as long as it stays. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • jen

    I know that sugar water will go bad and sour and that it shouldn’t be left out…but, I had a feeder hanging that I forgot about and when I got to it it was fermented. Unfortunately it looked as if they were still feeding from it. Do they not have a natural instinct to not eat something if it will make them sick? Just wondering if the birds can tell when to stop eating from a feeder that’s gone bad or if they will eat and get sick

    • Hi Jen, Sorry for the slow response time. Hummingbirds usually stop eating sugar-water that has gone bad. Like any animal, they learn from trial and error. It has been documented that cedar waxwings can get drunk after ingesting berries that have fermented on the vine. I am not aware that hummingbirds similarly “enjoy” fermented sugar-water, and I doubt they do. Maybe the hummingbirds—not just one—sampled the fermented liquid and left, leaving newcomers to sample it. Or maybe it was woodpeckers, finches or orioles, which are bigger and sturdier than hummingbirds, were the culprits sipping from your fermented nectar feeder. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • Donyavangogh

    One day I watched P. Allen Smith episode that showed me the way to get rid of wasps. Take 2 Tbsp of peppermint Oil. (comes in small bottle for drops) and add it to a cup of water in a spray bottle. In the evening when they are less active at their nest, spray the nest.

    To keep them away from the feeder, I will rub a couple of pure peppermint oil on the bottom and top of feeders. Try not to use any feeder that leaks, either.

    For ANTS: A super easy way to rid yourself of ants at the feeder is WD-40 spray. Don’t get it in the sugar-water, but if you spray it on the main branch and the top of the feeder, you’ll no longer have an ant problem.

    For Cockroaches/water bugs: (this isn’t a feeder problem) Whenever and wherever you see one of these insects that send me to bellow out a loud opera yell (bad childhood experience involving a Tonka truck, steak-knife and an invincible cockroach when babysitting at way too young an age in a cockroach infested home)…. ANYWAY, wherever you see one put a bit of borax powder. I will put a line of borax across the outside front and back doors to keep them out. I live in the desert and they are a plenty there. Neighbors will exterminate via a commercial service and then those buggers come to my home so since I’ve discovered this, I’ve not had a problem.

    The borax is irresistible to cockroaches but it dehydrates them. They become chronically dehydrated and die. Then their buddy cockroach will eat them and also become dehydrated. Some will make it back to their nest and pretty soon the entire nest is annihilated.

    To SUM UP:
    1. Peppermint Oil: Wasp deterrent (don’t get in nectar)
    2. WD-40 Spray: Ant deterrent (don’t get in nectar)
    3. Borax Powder: Cockroaches anywhere for home pest control. (be careful not to put on plants though.

  • Stephanie Plum Belknap

    I live in Florida and have a pair of hummingbirds that come around daily. They feed off of my garden of flowers. It’s summer here and in full bloom and notice they are out much more now then usual-maybe they are hungrier or feeding a nest? Anywho-my question is should I hang a feeder to help?

  • Bob Foster

    Hi. We have a cabin that we visit for only a few days each month. Is it a bad idea to put out HB feeders for only those few days and then leave ? Guess we could leave them filled and the fluid would last however long it lasts, but likely to run out before our next trip up.

    • Hi Bob, Hummingbirds are accustomed to searching wide areas for new nectar sources as old ones become depleted. Offering sugar water only occasionally then withdrawing it isn’t much different from a flower that blooms, then dies back. Go ahead an offer it on occasional weekends. I would recommend removing the feeder and washing it before you leave your cabin, though. Otherwise, the nectar might spoil in the feeder, and it’s not helpful to offer that to hummingbirds. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • Donna

    Hi, so I have a question about feeding. I’m in Tennessee and for several years I’ve fed a big group of hummingbirds, but after they finished up the season last winter I decided to not put any feeders out this year because I’m moving in September and I didn’t want to get anyone dependent on me if I wasn’t going to be here.
    But in the last few days they’ve been stopping by the window where I used to hang them, are they dependent on me anyway since I fed them so well the last few years? It’s breaking my heart watching them swoop around where the feeders used to be. Should I put some out until I move? Are they going to be okay? It’s already July and I just started seeing them again.

    • Hi Donna, Hummingbirds habituate to a food source, but they are very accustomed to one food supply becoming depleted, and going off to find another. Except during a lengthy drought or other extreme weather, hummingbirds really don’t need food from humans. It’s fine if you opt to put out a feeder or two now, even though you’re going to move soon. You might offer them less each day as the move approaches, but they will be fine even after your feeders go empty. If you enjoy watching them, feed them! Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • Linda

    Hello Everyone! I am new to this site and I’d like to know if any of you have seen downy woodpeckers drinking out of hummingbird feeders? I observed this for the first time last week, and it has continued, although less when I have the regular seed feeders out. I have to take them in because of overly aggressive squirrels and an occasional bear………..thank you!

    • Hi Linda, Yes, woodpeckers do enjoy sugar-water when they can get it! Not all nectar feeders accommodate the big bill of a downy, but they sure will lap at the sweet liquid if they can get to it. House finches and orioles are also known to enjoy food meant for hummingbirds! You might try putting out the nectar feeders first thing in the morning, and bringing them in just as soon as it gets dark. Bears are usually most active at raiding bird feeders at night. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • Kim Pardalis Cozzo

    I put my first Hummer feeder up this year. I also put up a finch feeder about 5-6 feet away on the other side. I hung red plants and red chimes in between and I clean my feeder regularly. I also hung it in the shade. But
    when a hummingbird comes up, it perches on the feeder, stays a second, and flies away w/o feeding. Does anybody know what Im doing wrong?

    • Hi Kim,
      Your wind chimes might be a problem. Sounds and moving objects are usually deterrents, not attractants, for birds. But maybe it’s not the chimes. It can take a while for hummingbirds to recognize that a nectar feeder is a nectar feeder! If this is your first year of providing one, it’s just plain going to take a while before the hummingbirds realize it’s there, and that it’s full of yummy food. You’re doing right by hanging it in the shade, and cleaning and replacing the nectar often. You might try taking down the chimes until the hummingbird traffic picks up and becomes steady. –Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

      • Kim Pardalis Cozzo

        Thanks so much, Dawn. It IS my first year for the feeder. The chimes are actually red. I thought they would attract the hummers, not a deterent!!! I’ll take them down today and be patient and see what happens! Thanks again! If you don’t mind, can I contact you again for advice???

        • Of course!! I’ll be curious to find out, too, when the hummingbirds finally start using your feeder!

        • Mary Frazier

          Kim, I have my feeders, 2 of them about 4 feet from a set of large chimes. It does not slow them down at all. Neither does the presence of my 2 dogs or me. My feeders are in the shade, I have a lot of shrubs and trees nearby and I also use a mister in the shrubs when its really hot. I am not sure if its any or all but I do have a lot of hummers.

    • Kim Pardalis Cozzo

      Thanks Mary … I took the feeder down for a week, but I see this is a “learn as you go” type of thing! I’m putting it back up today!

  • Huldah Currey Bewley

    My back yard in Hickory NC is in direct sunlight all day, and it hot! Right now we are in the 90s. Should I even use a feeder? My flowers are perennials that are heat loving plants. I have seen a hummingbird in my garden daily, and wanted to feed with a feeder.

    • Hi Hulda: It’s fine to hang a hummingbird feeder in a sunny spot, but you’d be wise to make it a small one, or to add only a small amount of sugar-water. The nectar will go bad much more quickly in the sun, so expect to replace the nectar and thoroughly wash the feeder more often — perhaps daily if it’s THAT hot! –Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

      • Huldah Currey Bewley

        Thanks Dawn, I will try that. Hopefully it will cool off soon!

  • Appy

    I have a small urban lot, I have a few humming birds fav like – cardinal plants, Agastache, others planted along the patio area. I would love to see more birds. I have noticed that when I open my door to be in the patio all the birds fly away. Do birds not stay and feed next to people like bees/ butterflies do or is it just time and over the period they gain trust that we mean no harm to them. The window from my living room is not big and I would love to watch them in action. Thanks for taking the question.

    • Hi Appy: I think hummingbirds feel more comfortable in larger numbers. Some friends of mine get hundreds of hummingbirds at a time at their feeders, and those birds are very bold. I’ve had my nose inches away from their nectar feeder, and still it had a dozen birds on it and more hovering nearby. (I was afraid for my eyes!) But at my own feeder, where I’m lucky to get a bird or two, as soon as a hummingbird sees that I’m on the porch, it’ll take off. On the other hand, I’ve had hummingbirds approach me when I’m wearing a red or flowery shirt. But I can’t approach them. I think if you could make your yard attractive enough to bring in a swarm of hummingbirds, they’d be more tolerant of you. Competition with each other for nectar might overcome their fear of humans. –Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

    • jen

      Try going early in morning and sitting very still and quiet. If you have time to do this every morning in time they will not even notice you are there. I had the same issue with the few birds we have and after a week of me being in the area (very still) they now fly by me as if I’m not there!

  • Terri

    I can’t figure out why I haven’t seen any Hummingbirds so far this spring. I have my 2 feeders out where I had them last year. I had like 4 or 5 last year regularly.I have the bird feeders where I had them last year. I added a bowl for the squirrels but it’s not near their feeders. So bummed so far. The Hummingbirds are in my state and have to be near us. Any suggestions? Our weather has been weird this year but their all over Illinois.

    • Hi Terri: Hummingbirds have been slow to return to southeastern Ohio, too. But just wait. Even though hummingbirds are back in the Midwest, it’ll be a few weeks yet before their numbers really pick up. Females are spending lots of time incubating. Give it a few weeks, and I bet your numbers (and mine) will pick up. By late July and early August, when juveniles are abundant and females are freed from incubation, numbers will return to “normal,” I predict. When hummingbirds head south each year, their numbers are at their peak, and early every summer, I think, we forget that it takes a few months before numbers really pick up.
      –Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • Sharon Fuller

    I live in Lewiston Idaho, we are at sea level and have mild winters, but do see freezing temperatures and snow on occasion. I leave my feeder up year-round and as of today ( November 9, 2015) I have at least one hummer frequently throughout the day. I am fairly certain it is an Anna’s hummer. Should I continue leaving the feeder up? People think I am endangering the hummer, but I believe they are guided by nature, not my feeder. I still have flowers blooming in pots on my deck near the feeder. Am I in the wrong?

  • Lorraine McIntyre

    Will hummingbirds be ok when I move? I live on the west coast of Canada and still have quite a few birds feeding here. I’m worried they are depending on my feeder, and I’m moving at the end of October. Thanks

    • Kyle Carlsen

      Hi, Lorraine: Wild birds have learned to take advantage of our feeder offerings, but they are still experts at finding and taking advantage of natural food sources, too. Your hummingbirds will be fine. They’ll follow their natural instincts and move on or migrate and locate adequate food sources. Birds are smart and built to survive. No need to worry! —Kyle Carlsen, Bird Watcher’s Digest

      • Lorraine McIntyre

        Thank you so much Kyle! I’ve been very worried about “my birds”. I’m probably more attached to them than they are to me, or my feeders. I will miss them, but you’ve put my mind at rest.
        Thanks again, Lorraine

    • Lorraine McIntyre

      Oh yeah, they live in the giant Douglas Fir and juniper tree right outside in my backyard. They don’t seem to be thinking about migrating.

  • Linda

    For several years, I have had 4 to 5 large hummingbird feeders of which I refill at least 3 of them daily. I probably have 200 birds and although it’s time consuming, I enjoy it. However, since I do travel often, I rely on my good neighbor to fill in for me which she does. I know it’s not easy for her and so come next Spring I want to cut back to two feeders. Right now I still have the full quantity of birds and I expect (hope) they will be migrating soon. I will keep one or two feeders up all winter as I do have about a dozen that stay. What can I expect next spring if I don’t put up the full amount of feeders? Is this a good idea or not?

    • Dawn Hewitt

      Hi Linda, Birds are

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