Tips for Feeders

This guide provides helpful information about when to put feeders up, what to do about cold nights, and how to make the best sugar solution.

hanging feeder
Photo: Natalie Osborne Smith
  • Put feeders up.
    Set out your feeder about a week before hummingbirds are expected to arrive in your location.
    Watch the map and put your feeder out when the birds get close to you. Check the map archives to find dates they usually arrive in your area. Feeders are reliable sources of food for birds needing refueling if natural flowers are not yet in bloom.
  • Bring feeders inside on cold nights.
    Rubythroats are stressed by prolonged frigid weather, but don't have much trouble with a few nights in the teens as long as there's food. You can help the earliest birds by putting out at least one feeder early, using the standard 1:4 ratio. Keep an eye on the syrup, and change it when it gets cloudy. You can bring feeders inside at night. Put them outside in the early morning so hummers don't drink dangerously cold liquid. Here's why: Hummingbirds can lower their body temperature overnight to conserve energy but the trickiest part of that adaptation, called torpor, is getting the body temperature back up in the morning. A hummingbird must warm up its body the moment it awakes. It shivers to warm up, but the tiny bird's stomach is empty and shivering uses up stored energy. During this warm-up time, the bird is sluggish, groggy, and very hungry. As soon as it can, it flies off to eat breakfast. Some people have observed hummers suffering hypothermia when perched to drink very chilled water. Experts do not offer an arbitrary temperature at which this may happen as there are no studies to support this, according to Shari Williamson, one of the world authorities on hummingbirds. It is safe to say that warm food helps warm up cold birds.
  • Adjust sweetness for conditions. Hummingbirds thrive on sugar water that matches, roughly, the sweetness level of natural nectar, which is from about 1:5 to 1:3. Ornithologist Laura Erickson personally recommends using 1:4 during normal conditions, 1:3 when it's cold and wet, and 1:5 when it's hot and dry (to help protect the birds from dehydration). Lanny Chambers, our Journey North hummingbird expert stays strictly to a 1:4 ratio with the explanation that if a bird needs more sugar it will drink more nectar. He strongly advises making your own mix of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, and do not add any red coloring. Research has suggested that the red color agent is harmful to hummingbirds.
  • Keep feeders fresh. Nectar in your feeders must be changed to keep it fresh so it doesn't ferment and end up with mold growing in it. Change solution immediately if it gets cloudy or you see mold. Change it at least every four or five days, and much more often during temperatures above 90F (32.2C). Any syrup solution will spoil eventually, regardless of temperature, so keep a careful eye on it.
  • Have the right feeder size and type. Choose a feeder you are willing and able to clean with each change of food. Choose one that fits the size of the hummingbird population that visits your feeders. More feeders will support more hummingbirds, and will help reduce territoriality. Fill a feeder only partly full if the food is not being used.
  • Hang in there! "Hanging a hummingbird feeder means assuming a certain amount of responsibility for the well-being of a fragile and trusting animal," reminds Lanny Chambers. The energy a hummer stores by the end of a day usually is just sufficient to survive overnight. Their survival depends on eating frequently or they continually face the danger of starving. Your feeders are important!