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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 or under a covered patio. They gather a nightmarish amount of ants for 24-36 hours, take the poison back to feed the colony, then they're all dead.]



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. Sign up below to be notified of every new post!



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