12 Frequently Asked Questions About Feeding Hummingbirds

Get answers to common questions about feeding hummingbirds and hummingbird behavior from a birding expert.

Hummingbirds are amazing creatures, with the ability to fly backward using wings that beat about 30 times a second. It’s no wonder people love attracting hummingbirds to their yards to enjoy them up close. Birding expert George Harrison answers some of your most frequently asked questions about feeding hummingbirds.

Questions About Feeding Hummingbirds

feeding hummingbirdsCourtesy Jennifer Smith
Male broad-billed hummingbird 

What’s the Recipe for Sugar Water to Feed Hummingbirds?

Mix four parts hot water to one part sugar. While some people don’t boil their water, it’s best to boil and then let it cool to room temperature to remove any impurities. 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.

Should I Add Red Food Coloring to the Mixture?

Bnbhc18 Kimberle GliddenCourtesy Kimberle Glidden
Don’t add dye or food coloring to sugar-water 

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 add red dye or other ingredients to feed hummingbirds. The feeders usually have red parts, which provide enough color to attract hummingbirds. Stick to clear sugar-water when feeding hummingbirds.

Check out the best red hummingbird flowers to grow.

When Should I Hang My Hummingbird Feeders?

hummingbird mixture, feeding hummingbirdsCourtesy Donna Pittman

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 returning to the spot where the feeders were last summer and hover there looking for them.

Learn how to clean hummingbird feeders.

I’ve Planted a Hummingbird Garden, but I Haven’t Seen a Hummingbird. Why Don’t They Visit?

Colorful Hummingbird On Backyard Feederrobert brown/Getty Images
Juvenile ruby-throated hummingbird

Try placing a hummingbird nectar feeder close to or among the colorful hummingbird flowers in your garden. This should create a target area for the birds and make attracting hummingbirds to your garden much easier.

Discover 7 natural ways to keep bees and wasps away from hummingbird feeders.

When Should I Start and Stop Feeding Hummingbirds?

In northern states, May is a good time to hang up your hummingbird feeders. In the South, migratory hummingbirds begin tapping 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.
Discover the truth about common hummingbird myths.

Is It Better to Plant Flowers for Feeding Hummingbirds Rather Than Put Out a Sugar-Water Feeder?

hummingbird on flowerCourtesy Della Alcorn
Anna’s hummingbird feeding at a purple coneflower

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman say, “If we had to choose one over the other, we’d vote for planting flowers because they have many other benefits. A flower garden with a focus on native plants, full of a variety of species chosen to bloom throughout the warmer months, will sustain butterflies, bees and other pollinators. The tiny insects feeding on the plants’ leaves will in turn feed warblers and other songbirds.

But we think it’s ideal to have both flowers and feeders. A sugar-water feeder can be placed where it’s easy to watch, and it can help keep hummingbirds faithful to the yard during lulls in the garden’s blooming activity.”

How Do Hummingbirds Feed Their Babies?

Hummingbird nestCourtesy Nancy Marshall

Hummingbirds usually feed tiny insects and spiders to their young. They insert them right into the mouths of their baby hummingbirds. 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.

Here’s everything you need to know about hummingbird nests.

How Do Hummingbirds Drink Nectar?

feeding hummingbirdsCourtesy Jeri Lampman

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.

Will hummingbirds use a birdhouse?

I Saw a Yellowish Hummingbird at My Feeder. Is This Common?

Though rare, some bird species will produce a yellow version of themselves, such as yellow cardinals. 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.

What makes a hummingbird feather so shimmery?

Why Do Hummingbirds Hang Upside-Down From Feeders?

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

Hummingbirds can shut down their metabolism to conserve energy and may appear to be dead. This condition, called torpor, 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.

Where do hummingbirds sleep at night?

Questions About Hummingbird Behavior

How Do Hummingbirds Fly 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.

Add a bird bath for hummingbirds to your yard.

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 mate for life?

George Harrison
Bird-watching enthusiast George H. Harrison is an award-winning nature writer and photographer whose accomplishments include authoring more than a dozen books on birds and backyard creatures, hosting six PBS television specials and serving as a birding expert for Birds & Blooms magazine. While working at National Wildlife Federation, he served as both managing editor and field editor of National Wildlife.