How to make hummingbird food
Feeding hummingbirds is a very common activity in the United States. No matter where you live you probably have at least one species of hummingbird that arrives in early spring and remains into autumn. East of the Rocky Mountains your widespread hummingbird is the Ruby-throated. West of the Rocky Mountains, all the way to Alaska, the widespread hummingbird is the Rufous. If you live in the Southwest you may have more than 5 regular species of hummingbirds that will visit your feeders. Along the West Coast, the Anna's Hummingbird is a year-round resident!
Many stores sell hummingbird nectar. However, you can make your own hummingbird food much more inexpensively than store-bought foods. The nectar you can make following this recipe is actually more healthy than what the stores sell. Most brands of commercial hummingbird food have food dyes and preservatives. Make your own homemade hummingbird nectar--it is cheaper and better for the birds!
The recipe for hummingbird nectar is very simple. You can easily half or double the quantities. Just maintain the 4 to 1 water to sugar ratio. And never deviate from the listed ingredients!
Hummingbird food recipe
- 1 cup of refined granulated white sugar
- 4 cups of water
- In a sauce pan heat your measured water, but it is not necessary to boil
- Stir in measured sugar until dissolved
- Allow to cool to room temperature
Fill the hummingbird feeder with nectar
- Fill feeder with food enough for 2-3 days
- Store excess sugar water covered in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks
- Clean and rinse feeder thoroughly
- Refill with only enough hummingbird food for 2-3 days
How do you steal your neighbor's hummingbirds? Keep reading! But first, here are some important explanations about the hummingbird food recipe above.
Photo by Greg Gillson
Do not substitute ingredients in this hummingbird food recipe!
There is so much misinformation on what foods you should or shouldn't feed hummingbirds. I don't want to add any of my own opinions. Instead, I will defer to the formula recommended by the Smithsonian's National Zoo (source). That expert states to ALWAYS use refined white sugar. That is common table sugar. It further goes on to clarify: NEVER use honey, corn syrup, or raw sugar when feeding hummingbirds. Refining sugar removes any molasses. Molasses contains iron. While iron is good for people, it is very bad for hummingbirds.
Bacteria and fungus thrive in honey mixed with water and left outside, as is the case for hummingbird feeders. These are deadly to hummingbirds. One common fungal infection caused by feeding honey causes the hummingbird's tongue to swell. The tongue becomes extended and hangs outside the bill. Birds eventually starve. Very sad. Totally preventable.
If you use tap water and a clean mixing bowl there is no need to boil your water when you make hummingbird nectar. In fact, you don't even need to heat it at all. Sugar dissolves better in warm water than cold. That's the only reason to even heat the water. Boiling won't make clean dishes and ingredients more sanitary or make the food last longer.
Sugar to water ratio for hummingbird food
The ratio of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar is ideal. The Cornell Lab or Ornithology (source) says that this ratio is best during warm weather. The nectar supplies hydration as well as calories.
On the other hand, a stronger sugar solution of 3 parts water to 1 part sugar may provide needed calories during cold or rainy weather. This concentration of sugar is higher than what you should normally provide, though.
The Cornell Lab says that the 1:4 or even 1:3 sugar to water ratio matches the sucrose level range typically found in flower nectar.
What about adding food coloring to homemade hummingbird food?
Whether red food dye is harmful to hummingbirds is open to debate. What is known is that it is totally unnecessary. Most hummingbird feeders have red coloration near the feeding ports. That is sufficient.
Hummingbirds will check out all red objects to see if they might be flowers containing nectar. Once they find your feeder they will return, whether brightly colored or not.
So don't add food coloring to your hummingbird food.
Why use smaller feeders?
A busy feeder can be emptied by hummingbirds rather quickly. Thus, you may be tempted to buy a larger hummingbird feeder with more ports. Here is why that might not be beneficial for the hummingbirds.
It is a joy to feed hummingbirds. A hummingbird feeder is a safe way to attract and feed these tiny birds. On the other hand, a dirty hummingbird feeder is unsanitary and unsafe for the hummingbirds feeding there.
In warm weather hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every 2-3 days, washed and scrubbed thoroughly with soap and water. In cool weather it may be safe to wash feeders only once per week.
I don't know about you, but even with the best of intentions I find that it is often inconvenient to clean hummingbird feeders. As a result, they stay hanging for longer than they should. Then the sugar solution may become cloudy with bacteria or filled with disgusting black molds. Yuck! What do I do to protect the birds I am feeding?
I use a smaller feeder and only fill it about half way (maybe 8 ounces). After 2 days the hummingbirds have emptied the feeder completely. If I don't notice, or can't get to it, no harm done. Even after a couple days of an empty feeder it only takes an hour for the hummingbirds to discover that I've refilled it.
Please, don't "top off" your hummingbird feeders when the solution gets low. Take them down and clean them thoroughly before refilling. Every time. Please.
For this reason, rather than purchasing a single larger feeder, place out several smaller feeders that will be emptied completely within 3 days. Then clean and refill each feeder as needed. Don't let hummingbird feeders sit out with moldy food!
Photo by Greg Gillson
Steal your neighbor's hummingbirds!
It is really easy to get hummingbirds to come to a new feeder. That's one of the reasons feeding these little jewels is so popular. One of the main reasons for this ease of attraction to new feeders is that hummingbirds aggressively protect their food sources from other hummingbirds. These feeding territories are quite small.
Your neighbor's feeder no doubt has one dominant individual that attacks all others entering its domain. It probably also has several other more submissive birds that try to sneak in and get a drink when the boss is occupied chasing someone else away. All this chasing and sneaking and buzzing and twittering is one thing that makes watching hummingbirds so entertaining!
If you set up a new feeder at your home following the recipe above, the next-most-aggressive hummingbird in the pecking order will probably set up a territory at your feeder. What do you do to keep one bird from driving all the others away? Set up more feeders!
You might try putting two or more feeders near each other. The thought is that these feeders will attract more birds. The dominant bird will eventually tire out of chasing all the other birds and finally let them feed in (relative) peace. One of my neighbors has 3 feeders near each other and always has at least a half dozen hummingbirds at a time buzzing around them.
Alternatively, set up another feeder out-of-sight of the first feeder. That way submissive birds can feed in peace at the second "hidden" feeder. Last summer I had a male Anna's Hummingbird that set up a territory that included the hummingbird feeder in my backyard. This bird sat up in a bottlebrush tree surveying his kingdom. He would not let any other hummingbird near the feeder. So I set up another feeder around the corner, hidden from his view. This allowed several other hummingbirds to feed regularly.
Remember that the Cornell Lab says you can adjust the hummingbird food recipe from 1:4 to a 1:3 sugar to water ratio during cold weather? You can also make a more concentrated sugar mixture when you first set up a feeder. The extra sweet nectar will pull birds quickly away from your neighbor's feeder! Once established, go back to the 1:4 ratio.
Do hummingbirds eat any other foods besides nectar?
The sugar recipe we outline in our nectar feeder for hummingbirds provides only 2 things: hydration (water) and calories (sucrose). Because of their high metabolism rate, hummingbirds need both of these things daily, in fact, they must eat every 10-15 minutes! (source) But they also need protein.
Hummingbirds meet their protein needs by eating small insects and spiders. You may see hummingbirds inspecting plants and flowers in your yards looking for a protein snack.
Want to try feeding insects to hummingbirds? A bowl of over-ripe fruit or banana peels will attract fruit flies. The hummingbirds will love it!
So there you have it, two recipes for hummingbird food: a nectar recipe and a fruit fly recipe! Both are simple and inexpensive and good for the birds. Enjoy!
Read next: Where should hummingbird feeders be placed--in sun or shade?