Saturday, March 21, 2020

Why won't hummingbirds come to my feeder?

Preview: Hosting hummingbirds in your yard is a joy. But sometimes they don't come. 

Here are 5 common reasons why hummingbirds don't come to your feeder:

  1. It is the wrong time of year
  2. You are using the wrong nectar recipe
  3. The feeders are in the wrong location
  4. The feeders are dirty or the nectar has spoiled
  5. Bees and ants have taken over the feeder



Photo of male Rufous Hummingbird at feeder
Rufous Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

For years I have lived in areas where Anna's Hummingbirds are year-round residents. Despite this familiarity, I really enjoy seeing them at my feeders. I love to see hummingbirds zipping by! And not just Anna's.

Here at my feeder in San Diego County I regularly see Allen's too. Fall visitors at my feeder have included Costa's, Black-chinned, and Rufous.

But it hasn't always been so easy. At some places where I have lived, I had to work hard to attract hummingbirds. Any hummingbirds. So I know that feeling of wondering if I'm doing something wrong. Wondering...


Why won't hummingbirds come to my feeder?


Is there something wrong with your hummingbird feeder? We need to make sure we're not doing something that might drive hummingbirds away from our feeders. Our first topic, though, is about timing.


1. It is the wrong time of year


"Hummingbirds are here in the summer. How could this be the wrong time of year?"

Each hummingbird species is slightly different. But most of the long-distance migrants (Ruby-throated, Rufous, Black-chinned, etc.) follow the same basic pattern.

Male hummingbirds migrate out of Mexico and arrive on territory in the spring, 1-2 weeks before the females. It is still early spring, if not on the calendar, as far as the weather goes. There are only a few early blooming flowers and tree buds to provide nectar and insect food. Snow is still possible, or freezing temperatures at night.

These early males grab the best territories--a feeding territory. Feeding territories have flowers and bushes that will soon bloom. They have a tall perch or two to use as a sentinel post to drive out all other male hummingbirds from their domain. These territories are small. A territory may include a hummingbird feeder.

You might think that it would make more sense for the male hummingbirds to arrive later when the weather is better and more flowers are blooming. But by then the older experienced males have claimed the prime territories. If you want the best spot, you have to arrive early! Earlier than your rivals, but not so early you freeze or starve to death!

Once these territories are established the males stay in them until the flowers dry up.

If you don't make your yard enticing to the adult male hummingbirds when they first arrive in spring, that's it. They won't establish a feeding territory that includes your home. They won't visit your hummingbird feeders. By July, the males--who take no part in nesting duties or raising the young, return to Mexico.

[Where do hummingbirds migrate to? You may find this article interesting.]

Female hummingbirds arrive a couple of weeks after the males in spring. They find the areas with the most flowers. These prime areas will be ruled over by the dominant male. Breeding takes place.

The females then leave the male's territory to find a wooded area to build the nest, lay and incubate the eggs, and raise the young. All by herself. Away from the fighting males.

Females may build a nest in your wooded backyard or one with mature landscaping that provides bushes and shelter. That would be wonderful! If not, once the young hatch they will explore the neighborhood and perhaps find your feeder.

[I wrote an article all about hummingbird nests. You should check it out.]

The young will then find hummingbird feeders that are reliably filled and stay there until late fall before heading back to Mexico for the winter.

The point is this: If you don't put out your hummingbird feeders before the first males arrive in spring, it is possible you won't get hummingbirds until the fall migration begins in July or August. And these won't be the bright males you were hoping for. By then you'll likely have given up.

Please see my very popular article When to put out and take down your hummingbird feeders. This article lists the exact migration dates for each species in each state in the U.S. It tells you when to put out your feeders in the spring. It tells you when (or if) to take down your hummingbird feeders in the fall.

In some locations, hummingbirds are found year-round, even where there may be some snow or ice. Please read my article on how to keep your hummingbird feeder from freezing.


2. You are using the wrong nectar recipe


This is pretty simple. But some people want to make it complicated. Dissolve 1 scoop of white refined table sugar into 4 scoops of tap water. Fill your feeder.

Make no substitutions! All alterations of this formula are potentially harmful to hummingbirds. Anything you think is "healthier" or more "natural" is not for hummingbirds! Never feed honey to hummingbirds!

I usually use 1 cup sized scoops. This makes just less than 40 ounces of nectar. 

I fill my smaller 12 ounce hummingbird feeder. 

Then I place the extra nectar into two cleaned 16 ounce plastic water bottles with caps. I store them in my refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, refilling (and thoroughly cleaning) the feeder every 2-3 days when empty. Never "top off" your hummingbird feeders without washing them.

If you wish, you may buy expensive hummingbird food from the store. It will be this same recipe. The ingredients will say sucrose, 20%. That's table sugar. Avoid food coloring. Look for the clear nectar.

For more details on this subject, please see my in-depth article on making hummingbird nectar, entitled: Steal your neighbor's hummingbirds!



This video by Perky Pets has some suggestions for placing your feeder...



3. The feeders are in the wrong location


Usually it doesn't matter too much where you hang hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds are very good at finding food sources. They are used to flowers blooming in one location for only a few days at a time. Then they search for a new location. Even on one plant they'll sample all the flowers until they find the one with the sugar content they want.

[For ideas on where to place your hummingbird feeder, read these 25 tips.]

Likewise, once they find your feeder they'll keep coming back. In fact, if you move the feeders they may return repeatedly to where the feeder was!

But it is the matter of finding your feeders for the very first time.

In the spring you may want to place your feeder more in the open. You want hummingbirds migrating by to see them from far away. 

Hummingbird eyes are sensitive to red, pink, orange colors. Thus, in addition to the red on the hummingbird feeder, you may add other bright colored decorations or flowers to your yard.

[Do hummingbirds really like red? Read my article: Why are hummingbird feeders red?]

Once hummingbirds find your feeders, you can then move them to a better location. Feeders ideally will receive early morning sun. Feeders should receive shade during the heat of the day and afternoon. This will make the nectar last longer without spoiling.

[Read my article: Should Hummingbird feeders be placed in sun or shade?]

There are window mount feeders that hummingbirds will readily use. I've had those in the past. 

Right now mine is hanging out on the corner of the porch where the overhanging roof gives shade at noon and after. 

You can also hang them from shepherd hooks out in the middle of the yard, perhaps under a shade tree.

Hummingbirds like taller vegetation somewhat near the feeder for perching. 

Usually one dominant male bird will sit on an exposed perch and guard his hummingbird feeder from all interlopers. For this reason it can be good to have another feeder around the corner where the dominant male can't see both feeders at the same time. This will allow other hummingbirds to get a drink unmolested. [See my article: Get more hummingbirds with 2 or more feeders!]


4. The feeders are dirty or the nectar has spoiled


The sugar in the hummingbird food can easily spoil if left out in the sun too long.

Some people buy one large feeder so that they don't have to refill it as often. But I prefer several smaller feeders over one large one. The reason is that the nectar in the sun goes bad in about 3 days if uneaten. 

I want clean, healthy, hummingbird feeders. I want the hummingbirds to empty the feeder within 3 days. Then I clean them and refill. If necessary to accomplish this, I may not fill my feeder all the way--only what the birds eat in 3 days.

Cloudy hummingbird nectar is a sign of bacteria. Take down immediately! Dispose of the bad hummingbird food. 

Clean the feeders with detergent and water, bleach, or vinegar. As long as the feeders are rinsed thoroughly, any of these methods will work. If it is clean enough for you to drink out of, the hummingbirds should be fine. Some people claim that hummingbirds taste dish soap and won't feed. I've never noticed this to be the case. Use "dish detergent" and not actual "soap" as there is a difference. The detergent rinses completely away with water.

Warning! Most hummingbird feeders are NOT dishwasher safe!

You may notice black spots of mold inside your hummingbird feeder. This is hard to remove and grows back quickly. You will need to scrub your feeders with a bottle brush. 

I recommend feeders that have a large mouth and come apart completely, so are easier to clean. Check out the More Birds brand on Amazon following this link (Ruby, Garnet, and Diamond models).

It is easier to see if the nectar has gone bad if you do not use food coloring. Food coloring is at best unnecessary, and at worst perhaps unhealthy, for hummingbirds.


5. Bees and ants have taken over your feeders


Bees and ants also seek out the sugary sweetness of your hummingbird food. They can quickly foul the nectar when they crawl into it.

Bees are kept out of feeders by the feeder design. Those More Birds brands above keep the nectar away from the opening of the feeder port. Only the long tongues of the hummingbirds can reach down to the liquid. There are "bee guards" available for other feeder types.

[Read: How do I get rid of bees at my feeder?]

Ant moats are fairly successful at keeping ants out of the feeder. The More Birds feeders linked above have built in ant moats, though they are quite small on the 10 ounce feeder. Amazon has many different kinds of ant moats.

Of course, if vegetation touches your feeder the ants will climb up that. So trim leaves away from your feeder if set up near such vegetation.


Photo of hummingbird at feeder. Bryan Hanson from Pixabay
Gravity-feed style hummingbird feeders drip and leak


The gravity-feed type feeders are notorious for dripping and leaking. Thus, sugar water collects on the ground under the feeder. Ants immediately follow. 

[By the way, I highly recommend the Terro Liquid Ant Bait (link to Amazon here) for eliminating ants indoors within 24 hours.]




This article discusses some of the problems and things that might be wrong with your hummingbird feeder that keeps them from attracting hummingbirds.

In a future article I will discuss some more positive things you can do to get hummingbirds to come to your feeder. Here it is: Top 5 ways to get hummingbirds to come to your feeder!




33 comments:

  1. thank you for the information. I hope I haven't poisoned my hummingbirds! They were so beautiful. They haven't been around in several days. I changed the feed, but they were going crazy for the week old nectar. I'm not sure if the old batch poisoned them, or the new batch is faulty. And all of my feeders have small openings, so it is hard to clean.

    Brenda

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Keep trying, Brenda!

      Check your feeders from dusk to dark to see if hummingbirds are sneaking in to fill up before sleep. They often feed peaceably with each other then!

      If no birds are present for 3 or 4 more days go ahead and change your hummingbird nectar and try again.

      Birds could be busy with nestlings. Be patient!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Delete
  2. Please do NOT tell people to kill ants! They are a living part of nature and are part of the natural balance. They are food for other creatures too. The less we interfere with nature we'll find that it all balances out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The ant moat is a deterrent, it doesn't exterminate the ants in any way. And the ant bait is for at home infestations, aka OUR territory.

      Delete
    2. Your clarification is correct. Thanks for your well-worded and thoughtful response.

      Delete
  3. Live in north central Florida. Back in April I bought a feeder. Within 10 days I had a few birds stopping by. This continued until the bee's showed up around August. The feeder was bee proof but somehow I think they were getting some tiny bits of nectar so they stuck around. Everytime a bird would show up the bees would chase them off. October I bought another feeder that was also bee proof. No visitors of any kind for a month. A couple days ago I bought some red nectar from the store hoping the additional red color would attract them. Still nothing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, this is too bad!

      Check my article on getting rid of bees at the feeder.
      https://www.whatbirdsareinmybackyard.com/2020/06/how-do-i-get-rid-of-bees-at-my-hummingbird-feeder.html

      Also, you may learn about hummingbird migration timing in Florida (even though some hummingbirds can be found year-round, there).
      https://www.whatbirdsareinmybackyard.com/2019/11/when-should-i-put-out-take-down-hummingbird-feeders.html

      Hope this helps!

      Delete
  4. i wash my feeders in the dishwasher with no soap just water and have not had any problems yet.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have hummingbirds every year. At the end of last year, they stopped eating out of their feeder ( which they LOVED) it was a red glass feeder. I took the feeder down and washed it. I noticed that the copper/metal feeder holes were looking rusty. I did not put it back out. I put a plastic cheap feeder out and they didn’t come back. This year I have anoth blown glass feeder and they are interested, but they fly away once they get next to it. I have the clear store bought nectar in them. It was brand new, but left over from last year. Any ideas?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The nectar is brand new but left over from last year.

      Delete
    2. I'm not sure, Kari. maybe they just need time to get used to it. You've still got time, it's still early in the spring.

      Delete
  6. I have a bottle of clear nectar that I bought at the end of summer and it has never
    Been opened. Will it still be good? I can’t find an expiration date anywhere.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's sugar solution. So as long as it remains unopened it should be good.

      Delete
  7. I had many hummingbirds and had to add a 2nd feeder. I think orioles have scared them all away though. So sad!! I still hear them so I know they are around. Praying they will return!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A second feeder sounds like a good idea. I'm sure the hummingbirds will return.

      Delete
  8. I have a nesting hummingbird right outside my door. I placed a feeder there for her, but she isn't eating from it. I'm trying to make it easy for her to feed without having to fly far since there aren't many flowers nearby (going out to buy some for her soon). Any suggestions? Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. While the sugar in the flowers or the hummingbird nectar is important to provide needed calories to adults. The mother is likely collecting insects to feed her young the protein they need right now.

      Once the young fledge they will appreciate the hummingbird feeder.

      Delete
  9. I have 2 silly birds that come by several times a day and go to all 4 hummingbird feeders. I dont see hummingbirds m
    uch at all compared to last year. They remind me of a sparrow with a red head.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, those hummingbirds are looking for the very tastiest "flower" at your feeders!

      When the young fledge in a month or so you'll likely have many more birds visit your feeders.

      Delete
  10. I put out a feeder 3 weeks ago in Connecticut with your recommended homemade nectar and have changed it but still have no hummingbirds. Any suggestions?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Keep it out and filled, cleaning every so often as recommended. Perhaps you'll get hummingbirds after the young are out of the nest.

      You put up your feeders at least 4 weeks too late, though. That's why you're having trouble attracting them, I think.

      In Connecticut you should put out your feeders in early April.

      See: When should you put up and take down your hummingbird feeders:

      https://www.whatbirdsareinmybackyard.com/2019/11/when-should-i-put-out-take-down-hummingbird-feeders.html

      Delete
  11. Thank you for your knowledge. I'm in Michigan and after reading this I realize I probably put my feeder out too late - late May. This year I hung an orange colored oriole feeder next to the hummingbird feeder. Could that also be why we aren't seeing any hummers?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you're right. You may have put up your hummingbird feeder too late.

      Keep it up and filled through September. You may attract young hummingbirds in July or later.

      Delete
  12. I love your column lots of good information. I've got an old feeder 5 years old the plastic is turned dark on it or not dark I just can't see it real clear. I bought several new theaters that are glass and plastic and they just don't like the new ones. they if I won't get anything and I'll put the old one back out and here they come again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sometimes you just can't beat the oldie but goodie!

      Try hanging the old and new both for a while.

      Delete
  13. I live in GA and my feeder has been out and cleaned for the past 2 months. But I’m still not seeing as many birds as I have in the past. I switched to a store bought clear nectar and that seems to be when they stopped coming. Do I need to dilute the store bought nectar or is it fine as is? It doesn’t say on the bottle. I see the birds around sitting in my trees, so they know it’s there, but don’t seem to enjoy it as much any longer…any advice?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right now there are many flowers and insects for the hummingbirds to feed on.

      The young will probably soon use your feeder, well into fall.

      Try checking your feeder at dusk. Hummingbirds often feed until dark.

      If they are in your yard, they have found something they like.

      Delete
  14. Hello,
    We are in Atlanta, Ga - last year we had many hummingbirds. This year we haven’t even seen them. We use a bright red feeder with yellow bee guards and change the nectar frequently. We have bees - around the plant under the nectar.

    We miss the Hummingbirds - is there anything else we can do to get them back?
    Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, that is always discouraging.

      I'd try baskets of flowers or hanging plants. Especially early in spring. And perhaps consider such plants planted in the yard.

      Delete
  15. I am very experienced and successful with feeders or I was. I fed them for years in a wood lot we lived on 17 years, they would come to the windows and get our attention if the feeders got empty, very demanding! We have been in our new place 3 years this is my 2nd summer putting out a feeder, two feeders this year, and I can't get any. My wife's pressuring me to give up lol. I know there are birds in the area, I've seen them. No Joy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm... that does seem odd.

      I recommend hanging pots of flowers to attract them early in the season (may have to wait until next spring to see results.

      You might consider a neighborhood effort. Buy all your neighbors hummingbird feeders and get the birds established in the area. Well, you could just talk to your neighbors about it, but some gifts might go a long ways to bringing in hummingbirds and making friends with your neighbors!

      Delete

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