Frequently Asked Questions About Attracting Hummingbirds

Get answers about feeding and attracting hummingbirds and hummingbird behavior from birding expert George Harrison.

Hummingbirds are amazing creatures, with the ability to fly backward using wings that beat about 30 times a second. It’s no wonder folks all over their range are attracting hummingbirds to their yards to enjoy them up close. Learn how to feed them and more about their behavior as birding expert George Harrison answers some of our most frequently asked questions.

Feeding Hummingbirds

What’s the recipe for sugar water?
Mix four parts water to one part sugar. While some people don’t boil their water, it’s best to boil and then let it cool just to be safe. Be sure to change out the sugar water every few days. You can store extra sugar water in your refrigerator for a week or more.

Is it okay to add red food coloring to the sugar-water mixture?
One of the older red food colorings was found to be toxic to birds, but with the new formulations, I don’t believe that’s still true. However, it isn’t necessary to dye sugar water for hummingbirds under most circumstances. The feeders usually have red parts, which provide enough color to attract hummingbirds. Clear sugar water will work just fine when feeding hummingbirds.

When should I hang my hummingbird feeders for the return of my feathered friends?
Early May is a good time to hang up your hummingbird feeders. In the South, migratory hummingbirds begin tapping sugar-water feeders in backyards in early April. The funny thing about it is that if you don’t get them up early enough, the hummingbirds will often remind you by coming to the spot where the feeders were last summer and hover there looking for them.

I’ve planted a hummingbird garden, but I haven’t seen a hummingbird. Why don’t they visit?
Try placing a hummingbird nectar feeder close to or among the red flowers in your garden. This should create a target area for the birds and make attracting hummingbirds to your garden much easier.

When should I start and stop feeding hummingbirds?
Early May is a good time to hang up your hummingbird feeders. In the South, migratory hummingbirds begin tapping sugar-water feeders in backyards in early April. Don’t be in a hurry to take them down in fall. There’s a myth that if you leave your sugar-water feeders up, then the hummingbirds won’t migrate. This isn’t true. Don’t be afraid to leave your feeders up through migration season. This way, you’ll catch any late travelers as they fly through your area.
A mother feeding hummingbird nestlings.

A mother feeding hummingbird nestlings. Angella Parker

 

Hummingbird Behavior

How do hummingbirds feed their young?
Hummingbirds usually feed tiny insects and spiders to their young. They insert them right into the mouths of their babies. They’ll also feed nectar and pollen to the young birds. They do this by holding it in their throats and then squirting it into the mouth of the nestlings. Sometimes this will cause the youngster’s throat to swell temporarily, resembling a goiter.

Do hummingbirds sing?
Hummingbirds will often twitter or chatter while resting or when in pursuit of other hummingbirds. These high-pitched calls, which are slightly different for each species, may be considered their songs because the birds use them to establish territories and for courting.

Do hummingbirds drink by suction?
This is a bit of a tricky one. Hummingbirds seem to use their tongues in a way that scientists never expected – a hummingbird tongue’s tubes open down their sides when they insert it into a flower or feeder. When they pull the tongue back in, the tubes zip closed around the nectar, bringing it back into the bird’s mouth. They are one of the few species of birds that swallow liquid without throwing their head back to allow gravity to help them swallow.

How do hummingbirds fly 600 miles nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico during migration?
The simple answer is that hummingbirds store enough fat to allow them to cross the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, they begin this storage before they even leave their nesting grounds. You may notice that in late summer, just before they begin to migrate south, hummingbird behavior changes a bit and they eat more food more often. They stop to feed along the way, too, and store as much energy as possible. That’s why it’s important to maintain sugar-water feeders at least through September, even after hummingbird activity subsides.

Attracting Hummingbirds FAQ

The hummingbird behavior shown here is torpor, and is no cause for alarm. Julie Kennedy

I saw a yellowish hummingbird at my feeder. Is this common?
Though rare, some bird species will produce a yellow version of themselves. This condition is called xanthochroism, an abnormal yellowing of the plumage. It is thought to be caused by a loss of dark pigment (melanin) in the bird’s feathers. If the mystery visitor was much smaller than a hummingbird, it could be a sphinx moth, also called a hummingbird moth. This is a diurnal moth (meaning it’s out during daylight), and one variety is yellow in color and common in gardens in the summer.

Why did I see a hummingbird hanging upside-down?
Hummingbirds can shut down their metabolism to conserve energy and may appear to be dead. This condition, called torpidity, is employed most often at night. Yet reports of hummingbirds becoming torpid at sugar-water feeders during daylight are common. If you see a hummingbird in such a state, there is no cause for concern.

  1. Micki Smith says

    I see pictures of feeders with 4+ hummingbirds on it at one time. We have 2 feeders and the birds fight each other if one is feeding and another one tries to feed. What can we do?

  2. Elizabeth Taft says

    I live in California’s central valley foot hills of the sierra Nevada mountains. I have year round hummers. Is there anything special to do for the winter birds.

  3. Mary says

    I can never get more than one hummer at a feeder. I have them in my front yard and back. How can I get them to be more communal?

  4. Joan says

    I just had a hummer (male) hanging upside down on my feeder and another male poking at it with its beak. The window was open so I moved around to make them stop and the one flew away but the hanging one stayed exactly as it was. It was awake. I took the screen off and actually touched it. It casually flew away after hanging a little longer. What the heck?

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