Hummingbirds: How To Protect Them As You Feed Them

hummingbird at feeder

One of the smallest birds on the planet, hummingbirds get big love from bird fans, but neglected feeders can kill them. Here’s what to know.


I’ve written before about the importance of feeder maintenance with birds, but today let’s talk specifically about hummingbirds.

Neglecting their feeders can lead to infections and disease that can be spread quickly in their population. It’s a pretty horrific death, too, since it causes their tongue to swell so large that they can’t eat. They can easily pass it on to their offspring, resulting in a slow death from starvation.

We can’t let that happen! And none of it needs to happen if you follow my helpful tips.

Why are hummingbirds so important?

I’ll let the world’s bird authority answer that. Audubon writes:

Hummingbirds are pollinators, and some plants have evolved long, tubular flowers to take advantage of hummingbirds’ specialized method of sipping nectar. Native honeysuckles, penstemon, salvias, and other plants rely heavily on visits from hummingbirds for their own reproduction, as hummingbirds inadvertently collect pollen on their feathers and bill while feeding, and carry the pollen to the next flower.

According to Birdlife International, 47 species of hummingbirds are threatened, endangered, or vulnerable. Hummingbird habitat in North, Central, and South America is being lost to development and fragmentation, as well as to the exploitation of forested regions for the production of wood, coffee, and other crops. All of these changes negatively impact hummingbird populations.

We got to save the hummingbirds! Here’s how you can help.

Choose your feeder wisely

Make sure your feeder is easy to dismantle so it can be cleaned thoroughly. The nature of infection is that if any remains on the feeder, it continues to spread even with fresh, clean nectar added. “Thorough” is the watchword here.

It should also be easy to fill. Later I’ll tell you why it’s so critical to refill often, and if it’s hard to fill it, you could become complacent.

Clean it frequently

Soap leaves residue, so that’s not what your hummingbird buddies want. Instead, it’s just about using hot water and a bristle brush to give it a good cleaning.

While I see recommendations to use hot tap water, I personally advise boiling your kettle and giving it a good final rinse with just-boiled water.

If there’s ever any mold (particularly black mold), it’s critical you give it a good bleaching right away. Immerse it in a mix of hot water and bleach. The ratio is a ¼ cup of bleach per gallon of water, and let it sit at least a half-hour, or even overnight. Again give it a thorough hot-water rinse after it’s clean.

Change the nectar often, especially in summer

Hummingbird nectar must be plain, regular white sugar. Not brown, not sweetener, not sugar substitutes of any kind, not even honey. Sugar. They burn an insane amount of calories and need the real deal.

When you’re making your nectar of sugar/water, it’s important to boil it. Why? That’ll drive out the chlorine, and kill any yeast or other nasty things. The trick is only to bring it to a boil, don’t let it continue, or you’ll wreck the sugar/water ratio.

The Wild Bird Shop has a very helpful chart on changing nectar in warm temperatures. It’s so important to do because the sugar-water encourages fermentation, yeast, and mold. In the winter you can clean and change it weekly, just remember to take it in overnight so it doesn’t freeze.

In the summer,  Oregon’s Wild Bird Shop‘s chart tells you when you’ll need new nectar.

Daily high temperatures

When to Change Nectar
71-75 6 days
76-80 5 days
81-84 4 days
85-88 3 days
89-92 2 days
93+ change daily

Other things to know

Another issue with feeders is the sugar can attract others critters, especially ants. A good hummingbird feeder will feature ant guards, so that’s something to look for. Apparently people recommend applying either Vaseline and Tanglefoot (an insect deterrent) on the feeders, but bird pros don’t like these ideas since they can pose dangers to hummingbirds too, especially in that the residue can impede their ability to fly. Big deal for a little bird.

Hanging your feeder in the shade will keep it cool and therefore keep spore growth at a minimum. Putting it near a window will let you spy on feeding birds, but give them some time to get used to the space before you start watching them there, or you’ll creep them out and they may stay away.

Now you’re ready!

It’s true, being a nature lover can be a little bit of work, but it’s so worth it! Hummingbirds are a magical creature and they deserve our care and the effort it takes to do it well.

So many people buy feeders without knowing how important the maintenance is. Do hummingbirds a favor and share this post so your friends will know what it takes to maintain their feeders.

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