Attracting birds Gardening

Hummingbird Feeders: Put Them Out Early!

If you’re seeking to attract hummingbirds to this summers’ garden*, don’t wait too long!

The migratory North American species, such as the ruby-throated hummingbird (Eastern North America) and the rufous hummingbird (Western North America), overwinter in Mexico and Central America, then return to their northern haunts during the spring and summer. And if you want to have them faithfully visit your garden, nothing beats putting out and maintaining a hummingbird feeder or two. But you have to do it in a timely fashion.

*Sorry, readers from outside of the Americas, but hummingbirds (specialized nectar feeding birds in the Trochilidae family) are found strictly in the New World. You can put out birdfeeders, but to attract other birds, not hummers!

Lovers of Routine

Male ruby-throated hummingbird on a feeder.
Male ruby throated hummingbird visiting a nectar-filled feeder. Photo: Michelle Lynn Reynolds, Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbirds are creatures of habit. If they used a feeder a previous year, they’ll quickly check out the spot where it was when they arrive from the South. And, if it is present and contains nectar, they’ll use it and come back again and again. If it isn’t, they’ll check out the site for a day or two, then give up on it. They aren’t very patient!

If it’s a new feeder, it also has to be there when they first arrive, so early that flowers are pretty rare. After investigating it and finding nectar present, they’ll almost always adopt it into their daily rounds.

If you wait until you actually see a hummingbird and the feeder is not yet placed, set one up quickly, otherwise they’ll likely ignore it the entire summer. 

Coming Soon

The map above gives an approximate idea of when hummers are expected in your part of the continent. So, put out your feeder … two weeks before the suggested dates, just in case. After all, some springs are warmer than others … and there are always are a few intrepid early hummers—trailblazers!—even in the coldest years, and you won’t want to miss them.

You don’t have to fill the feeder at first. (Hummingbird nectar has to be changed every 3 to 5 days, so why waste it?) Just add about 1/3rd the amount needed to fill the feeder for this extra-early fill. When the birds do show up, you can start filling the feeder to the top.

Note that there are a few regions where hummingbirds are active year round, especially Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, the extreme southern US states and, more and more, the US/Canada West Coast. In such climates, do leave out and service hummingbird feeders all year long.

Tips on Attracting Hummingbirds to Your Feeder

There are all sorts of hummingbird feeders on the market and most are quite acceptable.

Male and female ruby-throated hummingbirds on a feeder.
Hummingbirds aren’t nearly as particular to the color of the feeder as is often claimed. Photo:
  • Many are red, as red is a color known to attract hummingbirds, but that isn’t absolutely necessary. Clear plastic ones with red trays or red, yellow or white feeding ports are just fine. 
  • Small feeders are just as effective as large ones and more convenient to clean.
  • Hang out a few red ribbons from nearby trees and shrubs to catch the attention of new arrivals. Once they start frequenting your feeder, you can remove the streamers.
  • You don’t need to add red-colored nectar and in fact, the dye used can be harmful to hummers. There are commercial nectars that contain no dye or you can make your own (see the recipe below).
  • Hang feeders from tree branches, roof overhangs or other structures, high enough so that cats and other predators won’t be able to jump on them. Keep them away from windows to avoid the risk of collision. And don’t put them with other bird feeders to avoid conflicts: hummingbirds may be small, but they often chase other birds away from their favorite spots.
  • Place feeders in partial shade, especially protected from hot afternoon sun, so nectar won’t spoil as quickly.
  • For best results, hang several feeders just out of sight of each other (male hummers are very territorial and if one is busy defending 2 or 3 neighboring feeders, you won’t get as much traffic).
  • Clean feeders thoroughly every 3 to 5 days. Even more often in hot weather!

It Frost Hits

Rufous hummingbird at a feeder covered in snow.
Rufous hummingbird feeding during a snowfall. Photo: John Newton, Picasa

Hummingbirds often push the limits, heading north when it’s still quite cold. And the migratory species can tolerate freezing temperatures, at least to a degree, by slipping into a state called torpor at night. However, they’ll need a quick nectar fix when they wake up. Try bringing at least one feeder indoors on cold nights, then putting it back outdoors early in the morning. And make sure you have a garden full of frost-tolerant mid-spring flowers wating to feed them as well.

Make Your Own Hummingbird Nectar

Pouring sugar into boiling water.
Hummingbird nectar is easy to make. Photo:

Here’s a simple nectar recipe. 

Step 1: Bring 4 cups of water to a boil.

Step 2: Add 1 cup of white granulated sugar.

Step 3: Stir well to dissolve the sugar.

Step 4: Boil for 2 minutes to help keep it from spoiling too rapidly.

Step 5: Allow to thoroughly cool.

Step 6: Use it to fill clean hummingbird feeders.

Do not add the following to your recipe:

  • Artificial sweeteners: hummers need energy, not a diet!
  • Red dyes: they’re not necessary and some are toxic.
  • Honey, molasses, brown sugar: they can quickly become infected with harmful bacteria and microbes.

You can store unused hummingbird nectar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Plant More Flowers!

Screen shot of article 150 Flowers that Attract Hummingbirds.

Feeders make a nice snack for hummingbirds, but they can’t live on artificial nectar alone. So, plant flowers, lots of flowers, tons of flowers, making sure you have something in bloom from spring until later summer/early fall, when hummers leave for the south. The more flowers you have, the more hummingbirds will faithfully visit your garden.

You’ll find a list of favorite hummingbird flowers here: 150 Flowers That Attract Hummingbirds.

Early Bloomers 

Here are a few flowers especially useful in attracting hummingbirds early in the season: just what you need to train them to see your garden as an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. 

Hummingbirds often time their arrival to profit from the blooming periods of their favorite plants, like this Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).
Hummingbirds often time their arrival to profit from the blooming periods of their favorite plants, like this Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Photo: Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  1. Anemone clematis (Clematis montana) zones 6 to 9
  2. Apple (Malus spp), zones 3 or 4 to 8
  3. Black Locust (Robinia pseudacacia and others) zones 4 to 8
  4. Bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis and Dicentra spp.), zones 2 or 3 to 9
  5. Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) zones 3 or 4 to 8
  6. Buckeye (Aesculus pavia and others) zones 4b to 8
  7. Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) zones 2 to 7
  8. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) zones 4 to 8
  9. Columbine (Aquilegia spp.) zones 3 to 8
  10. Crabapple (Malus spp), zones 3 or 4 to 8
  11. Currant (Ribes spp.) zones 3 or 4 to 8
  12. Dogwood (Cornus spp.) zones 2 to 9, according to species
  13. Fire pink (Silene virginica) zones 4 to 8
  14. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) zones 3, 4 or 5 to 8
Ruby-throated hummingbird visiting a honeysuckle.
Ruby-throated hummingbird visiting a honeysuckle. Photo: jeffreyw, Wikimedia Commons
  1. Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) zones 3, 4, 5 or 6 to 8 or 9
  2. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus spp.) zones 4b to 8
  3. Iris (Iris spp.) zones 2, 4 or 5 to 9
  4. Lupin (Lupinus spp.) zones 3 to 8
  5. Mahonia (Mahonia spp.) zones 4, 5 or 6 to 8
  6. Peashrub (Caragana spp.) zones 3 to 8
  7. Penstemon (Penstemon spp.) zones 2, 3 or 4 to 8
  8. Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) zones 2 to 10, according to species
  9. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) zones 7 to 9
  10. Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.) zones 3 or 4 to 8
  11. Sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia) zones 6 to 8
  12. Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)
  13. Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) zones 6 to 9
  14. Viburnum (Viburnum spp.) zones 2, 3, 4 or 5 to 8 or 9

Of course, these are just appetizers: you’ll need summer flowers as well, so let me again refer you to the article 150 Flowers That Attract Hummingbirds.

So, get those feeders ready and out on time so you can enjoy the antics of Ma Nature’s aerial acrobats—hummingbirds—right in your own backyard!  

3 comments on “Hummingbird Feeders: Put Them Out Early!

  1. Hummingbirds are so common and so appreciated here that the Ohlone who lived here a long time ago named Mount Umunhum south of San Jose after them. (‘Umunhum’ is the Ohlone word for ‘hummingbird’.)

  2. I wish we had hummingbirds. It is one of my bucket lists to see them.

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