Hummingbird and preying mantis at feeder. Photo by Ruthann Hughes.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hummingbirds

A: Hummingbird experts Nancy Newfield and Bob and Martha Sargent recently came up with a formula whereby you count the number of hummingbirds you can see at one time at your feeders and multiply this number by six to determine how many birds are visiting your feeder. They arrived at this number based on years of banding and color-marking hummingbirds at feeders.

At our feeders here in SE Ohio, we feed a half-gallon of solution a day, and we have calculated by the above formula that we get 139 hummingbirds during the busy part of the summer. Thus each of our hummingbirds is consuming .46 oz of nectar per day. There are 64 oz in our half gallon of daily solution, so if we divide 64 (the number of ounces consumed) by .46 (the per-hummingbird daily consumption), we get 139 hummers at your feeders. Wow!

Although this is not strict science, it’s fun to do the calculations!

2. How do I keep ants/bees out of the hummingbird feeder?

A: Select a hummingbird feeder with bee guards. These plastic devices allow the longer tongues of hummingbirds to reach the nectar. Bee guards prevent shorter insect tongues from reaching the nectar. Replace any dripping feeders.

You can also do things to discourage ants from getting to your feeders. Laundry detergent applied with a paintbrush will work. Paint whatever surface the ants use to gain access to the feeder (but not the feeder itself). The solution interferes with the ants’ chemical navigation. Refresh the application several times the first day. After a few days you won’t need it anymore.

3. What is the best ratio of sugar-to-water to use for feeding hummingbirds?

A: Four parts water to one part sugar (a 4:1 ratio) has been shown to be the closest to the sucrose content of natural flower nectar. Concentrations stronger than this (3:1 ratio and stronger) are readily consumed by hummingbirds, but no scientific evidence exists regarding the potential helpful or harmful effects on them.

4. Can I use molasses or honey instead of sugar to make my hummer nectar?

A: No. White table sugar is the only human-made sweetener that, when mixed with the right amount of water, closely resembles natural flower nectar. Resist the urge to use other sweeteners, which spoil quickly and may not be good for hummingbirds to consume.

5. When making hummingbird solution, do I boil the water before or after I add the sugar?

A: If you are using chlorinated municipal water boiling helps to reduce the amount of chlorine present in the water. Hot water dissolves the sugar faster, but cool your solution before giving the birds access to it. If you do boil the water, do it first, before adding the sugar.

6. Is the red dye found in premixed hummingbird solutions bad for hummingbirds?

A: Though no conclusive scientific evidence exists showing harmful effects of red food dye on hummingbirds, this chemical additive is certainly not a necessary ingredient in hummingbird solution.

Many commercially available brands of hummingbird solution contain red food coloring, which is meant to be attractive both to hummingbirds and to shopping bird watchers. Brightly colored flowers are nature’s way of attracting the eye of a foraging hummingbird.

So the red solution in feeders is aimed at attracting hummingbirds. Bright red feeder parts (which most hummer feeders have) or a bright red ribbon hung near the feeder can be just as attractive as red-dyed solution. Red dye or food coloring may or may not be harmful to hummingbirds, but it is completely unnecessary.

7. How do I foil a “bully” hummer?

A: Many hummingbird species defend feeding territories, and assemblages at feeders usually develop hierarchies. The behavior exemplifies natural selection at work, and you should do nothing except enjoy it.

If you’re worried about hungry hummingbirds, put up several more feeders near your original one. The bully will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers of other birds and will quit being so territorial.

8. Why does our male hummingbird fly in a U-shaped pattern?

A: This is the pendulum display flight of a male to a perched female. He zips back and forth and flashes his ruby throat (gorget) at her, hoping to impress her into mating with him. It is common to see this behavior in early summer.

9. Do hummingbirds migrate on the back of Canada geese?

A: No. This is either a Native American myth or just an old wives’ tale. Hummingbirds are excellent, strong-flying migrants. A healthy ruby-throated hummingbird can easily handle the 500-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

10. Is it true that hummingbirds at my feeder will not migrate if I leave my feeder up in fall?

A: No. This is another in a long line of bird myths. Birds are genetically programmed to migrate when their internal “clocks” tell them to do so. They will depart when the time is right whether your feeders are up or not. Leaving your feeders up in fall and getting them up early in spring may help early or late migrants that are passing through your area.

11. Does a hummingbird find flowers by smell?

A: Hummingbirds have little or no sense of smell. Most good hummingbird plants have no fragrance, and the hummingbird plants that do have a fragrance [Japanese honeysuckle, for instance] are exotics, usually Asian or African in origin. Therefore it would be incorrect to say that hummingbirds are drawn to any flowers because of the scent.

12. Are there bird houses specially designed for hummingbirds?

A: Hummingbirds do not live in houses like other species (bluebirds, house wrens, etc.). Rather, they collect spider web fibers and lichens to build cup-shaped nests on forked tree branches or a convenient ledge. In the West, black-chinned hummingbirds often nest in close proximity to humans. A product called Hummingbird House provides an inviting construction area for this western hummingbird. It’s basically an artificial tree branch.

The best way to attract hummingbirds is to offer them a variety of nectar-producing plants and a few feeders. Since hummingbirds like to eat flying insects, you can provide a reliable food source by keeping your yard free of pesticides.

14 thoughts on “Frequently Asked Questions about Hummingbirds”

  1. I have had humming birds for 10 years each year my numbers have multiplyed3weeks ago I had close to 100 birds on my 22 feeders during the late evening feeding. A week later I had roughly 20 . This week I am down to 8. What is happening

    1. Hi Lonny, I’m sorry for the delayed reply. You asked your question on June 1, when hummingbird migration was at its peak. Most of the birds at your feeders were on their way north. When things slowed down, males were defending territories, and females were nest-building or incubating. Now that it’s mid-July, the first clutch of fledglings should have fledged and found their way to your feeders, so I bet your numbers are on the increase again. Am I right?
      Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  2. How does a hummingbird find a flower/feeder? Does it fly around until it finds one, and remember the location? Thank you for all your help!

    1. Hi Tisko, It is essential to all birds’ survival that they seek out new food sources, so even when they become “regulars” at a feeder or in a garden, they’re still always on the lookout for new opportunities, and they’re amazing at remembering where those places are. Countless people have shared stories about a hummingbird showing up outside their window in early spring, as if to say “Hey! Where’s that feeder that was here last year? Time to put it out!” Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watchers Digest

  3. why does a hummingbird always be looking in my window before drinking from the feeders…its not afraid of me. 2 feet away from me…

    1. Hi Sunshine, Hummingbirds are well known to be window peepers! Folks often report hummers peering in windows when the feeder is empty, or early the season before the humans have gotten around to hanging it. Hummingbirds are always looking for new food sources, so it’s possible they are looking in your windows to see if there are any nectar-producing flowers in there! They’re also bold. I’ve had them fly inches from me, looking at flowers printed on my T-shirt. I’ve seen lots of videos on the Internet where hummingbirds are drinking nectar out of cups as people are holding them or even out of people’s hands! (Such things are achievable in locations where hummingbirds are thick—where hummingbirds come to feed by the dozen or hundred, so it is unlikely that you’ll be able to entice this lone hummingbird to take nectar from your hand. ) Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  4. how can I tell if my humming birds are getting any sugar water from my feeder, they poke in the flower all three but act like they aren;t getting food. could I have screwed the bootom to tight?

    1. Hi Donna, No, no matter how highly you’ve screwed on the bottom, that won’t block the feeding port. Try inserting a toothpick as far as you can without losing it. You’ll see it inside the feeder, and when you withdraw it, it will be wet. A nectar feeder wouldn’t be designed in a way that it would be possible to block the port holes. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  5. I was looking up their sense of smell because I had to paint the yellow flowers on my feeders red. They come yellow and I was getting hornets feeding. I was worried the birds might smell the paint fumes. I change the feeders here every day and will keep an eye on the painted flowers. If they start to chip at all, I’ll just replace the feeders with ones that come with red flowers. And according to your “chart” we are getting 18 birds at our front yard feeder one and maybe a few more at the back feeder. Wonderful little creatures. Oh and we’ve planted Bee Balm and Sage, Hot Lips red and a Mexican Blue.

  6. Denise Ertel Holly

    I have 3 feeders that hold 4 cups of solution apiece. I have to refill them every single day…that’s 96 oz… I don’t believe the numbers in this article. I only see about 30 at a time, and I can’t believe there are 200 hummers around…

    1. Hi Ms. Holly,
      Let’s generalize that hummingbirds weigh .15 ounces. If every hummingbird that visited your feeders consumed exactly its body weight at your feeders, you’d have 640 hummingbird visitors throughout the day. If each one drank twice its body weight, you’d have 320 birds visiting throughout the day. Various websites say that hummingbirds consume between half and eight times their body weight in nectar each day. If the 30 you see at at time were the only ones visiting, each one would be consuming 21.3 times its body weight in nectar! So, clearly, you’ve got way more than 30 hummingbirds. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

      1. Denise Ertel Holly

        Wow! Well thank you. I knew I had a lot but didn’t realize how many. There are waves of them about every 10 minutes so I figured it was the same 30 all the time. Clearly I was mistaken!

  7. Question. I have a hummingbird showing up this year (no previous years) in Oregon at my feeder, all greyish and white, but in certain light its has a jewel like ruby throat. But it is not the ruby throated hummingbird. It doesn’t look anything like the multitude of pics on internet (no green, no black tips on tail, no black beside the eye, etc. But I can’t find any other hummingbird that has hidden red throat feathers. Literally cannot see the red at all except when he turns his head in ceratin light…then it is brilliant. THANKS, S

    1. Hi Ms. Dax, Anna’s hummingbird is a year-round resident of the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. Depending upon the light, adult female Anna’s can appear gray or green above and gray-white below, and they have a small red patch in the center of their throat—which isn’t always visible. Do an Internet search for images of ”
      Anna’s hummingbird female ” and see if you find a photo that matches your bird. I bet you will. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

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