Is Salt Softened Water Dangerous for Hummingbird Food?

Find out whether salt water in hummingbird food is OK—or whether you need to stock up on bottled water during peak feeding season.

Is Your Tap Water Safe for Hummingbirds?

Ruby-throated hummingbird at sugar-water feederAndree Jannette
Ruby-throated hummingbird at a sugar water feeder

Depending on your situation, the water that comes out of your tap may or may not be safe to mix into your homemade sugar water. This is especially true if you have a water softener that adds salt to your water, because it will also add salt to your hummingbird food.

Before mixing up a batch, Birds & Blooms reader Gerre Jaroch of Petoskey, Michigan, wondered about the water she was using. “I recently had a water softener installed. Is it OK to use that water to make sugar water for hummingbirds? Or should I be using distilled water instead?” asks Gerre.

The truth is, it’s best not to use either softened or distilled water in sugar water for hummingbirds. Most water-softening systems raise the salt content of the water, at least by a little, and this could have a negative effect on hummingbirds’ health.

On the other hand, distilled water has all of the salts removed, but actual flower nectar does contain traces of natural salts. If you don’t have a source of unsoftened tap water, we’d suggest buying bottled water to combine with sugar (and stick to a 4 to 1 ratio). Pure white sugar is all they need, in addition to the other natural foods they consume. Find out how much and how often hummingbirds eat.

Hummingbirds Need Sugar Water, Not Salt Water

Ruby-throated hummingbird at sugar-water feederCOURTESY LEAH BOYNTON
Make sure your water is safe before mixing up homemade hummingbird food.

It’s important to never put salt in hummingbird food. Also avoid using red dye, honey, fruit juice, artificial sweeteners or other additives in your hummingbird mixture. Although you might think it’s a good idea to add extra sweetness or nutrients, most of the time these do more harm than good.

Next, read answers to the most frequently asked questions about feeding hummingbirds.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.