What Hummingbirds Want

A male ruby-throated hummingbird in flight at a feeder. Steve Byland/Shutterstock

Are you seeing hummingbirds at your feeders? If not — and if you’re eager to see these colorful visitors from Central America — we’ve got a few suggestions.

Below is a checklist of conditions the beloved birds are known to prefer.

One caveat: This list is written with the ruby-throated hummingbird in mind. This species (Archilochus colubris) visits the Eastern U.S. starting in the spring and is the only hummingbird to breed in this part of the country. It migrates from Central America to the U.S. Gulf Coast, then travels as far north as southern Canada. Western species such as the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) or Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) might behave somewhat differently.

To get an idea of the hummingbirds' whereabouts, check out this spring migration interactive map, which automatically updates, courtesy of Hummingbird Central:

hummingbird migration map key
A color-coded key for 's 2018 migration map. Hummingbird Central

Where you live is important

Julia Elliott, a licensed hummingbird bander in the Atlanta area who has banded more than 1,000 birds, says there's a lot of speculation that locations farther from civilization have a better chance of attracting large hummingbird numbers to backyard feeders. This theory, she readily admits, is based on informal observation rather than scientific studies or hard data from bird counts.

If you live in or near a city and aren’t attracting many birds, Elliott suggests putting out a cluster of four or five feeders. She thinks that might help draw in the birds and get them to congregate in your yard.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird, a first-year hatchling just 6-10 weeks old, rests in the hand of licensed bander Julia Elliott
A male ruby-throated hummingbird, just 6 to 10 weeks old, rests in the hand of licensed bander Julia Elliott. Tom Oder

Does this mean hummers want open spaces?

“That’s hard to say,” Elliott says. “They feed on nectar-producing plants, and almost all of these plants need sun.” Having an open habitat bordered by woods shouldn’t be a problem, she says, but “these are definitely not forest birds.”

Putting out feeders before peak activity

Many people put out hummingbird feeders in March or April on the first warm day of spring. While these are warm-weather birds, putting out feeders this early could have results that don’t reach expectations, Elliott says. While the first hummers begin arriving from Central America in the Southern states as early as mid-to-late March, these are the first migrants and they are moving through to summer grounds farther north. It’s fine to put out feeders for these birds, she says. “Early-arriving birds may really need an artificial nectar source to help them along in their migration, especially if there has been an early or late spring and the flower timing is off."

For example, the big numbers don’t build in the Atlanta area until after July 4, Elliot says. “Just remember that if you are not seeing birds at your feeder, it doesn’t mean they aren’t in the area!” Some ruby-throated hummingbirds will travel as far as the lower regions of Canada. The farther north you live in the Eastern U.S., the later the birds will arrive, and the sooner they will leave for the fall migration.

A variety of hummingbird feeders
Hanging hummingbird feeders in clusters prevents a dominant bird from chasing others away from a lone feeder. The red moats above the feeders are filled with water to prevent ants from raiding the sugar-water solution in the feeders. Tom Oder

But what if I get a late freeze?

Suppose you put out a feeder in late March or April and there’s a late freeze. Will it kill these warm-weather birds? Don’t worry, Elliott says. These little guys are tougher than you might think. While most will return to winter grounds in Central America in the fall, some have been observed over-wintering along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Does it matter where you place feeders?

No. If you have a small space, it’s fine to hang a feeder in or near a seating area.

And if you have a backyard garden, like Mark Watson — an Atlanta hummer enthusiast who invited Elliott and fellow bander Karen Theodorou to band birds at his house in late July — you can put them throughout the yard. Watson has 50 to 60 feeders, one at every possible location in his backyard, which looks like a Six Flags for hummingbirds. Some feeders hang from trees, some are suspended from poles that hold multiple feeders, several are beside patio doors and others are placed on a stair rail leading to a second-floor balcony, where the railing is lined with more feeders.

“We’ll be sitting out here on the patio, and they’ll whiz right past us,” says Watson’s wife, Teresa. “These are not shy birds!” Elliott adds.

ruby-throated hummingbirds, Archilochus colubris
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are known to fight over territory. Kelly Nelson/Shutterstock

Suppose you have a dominant bird

Hummers are notoriously territorial. A dominant bird will attempt to chase away competitors from a feeder it has claimed as its own. Elliott has a way to deal with such a bird. “Put out one or more clusters of at least three feeders in each cluster,” she suggests. “This will simply overwhelm a dominant bird. It can’t defend them all.”

What about ants?

The sugar water in your feeder will attract ants. Hanging the feeder from a red moat filled with water will easily solve this problem (see the photo of feeders earlier in this article; they're hung from little red cups filled with water). The water forms a barrier the ants can’t cross. Another benefit of the moat is that it will provide a water source to attract songbirds.

Saucer feeders come with a built-in moat. The moat is small, however, and the water can quickly evaporate on hot summer days.

What about bees?

If bees and wasps are a serious problem, try using a saucer feeder rather than a tubular feeder. The nectar solution is farther from the surface of a saucer feeder than from the surface of a tubular feeder. Bees and wasps don’t have a proboscis long enough to feed from a saucer feeder.

ruby-throated hummingbird female, Archilochus colubris
A female ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder in Minnesota. Pete Markham/Flickr

When are the birds most active around feeders?

In the mornings and evenings. They don’t like the sometimes-sweltering heat of a summer day any more than people do. In the middle of the day, they tend to feed more on insects such as gnats and mosquitoes rather than using their energy to hover around feeders. Bottom line: Don’t worry if you don’t see hummers in the middle of the day. They’re just conserving energy.

What if there’s a hurricane?

Hummingbirds actually fly fairly well in wind and rain, but a hurricane can be too much even for them. They may not be able to feed during the worst of the storm, and the winds could destroy flowers on nectar-producing plants. Make sure you refill feeders with fresh nectar as soon as it’s safe to go outside.

When should I bring my feeders in?

Actually, it’s a good idea if you live in the Southeast to leave one or two feeders up all winter. Leaving feeders up when summer turns to fall and fall turns to winter will not keep the birds from migrating. “The will is too strong,” Elliott says.

“The reason to leave feeders up in the Southeast is that this region is now the normal winter range for the rufous hummingbird,” Elliott says. “What we think is going on is range expansion."

rufous hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus
A rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) perched in a tree. Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock

A few winters ago, she adds, a rufous hummingbird was trapped, banded and released in Tallahassee. The next summer it was trapped and released by a bander in Alaska, which is part of its normal summer range. In another case showing the species' apparent range expansion, a rufous was trapped, banded and released in the winter in Texas, then trapped and released the next summer in Alaska.

“These are pioneers in their species,” Elliott says.

When do ruby-throated birds return to Central America?

They are pretty much gone by November, according to Elliott. Ruby-throats’ annual visit to North America follows this general cycle, she says.

  • May-April: Early migrants.
  • May-June: Breeding.
  • July: First brood is out of the nest and feeder activity picks up.
  • August-September: Second brood, in areas where there is one, is out of the nest and the birds are gorging at feeders. In some cases they are doubling their weight for the flight to Alabama, Louisiana and Texas and then the long flight across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America or down the land mass into Mexico. The birds going to Central America travel about 500 miles across the Gulf in a flight that lasts between 18 and 24 hours, Elliott says. The males will begin migrating first because their job is done.
  • October: All of the birds that will migrate have moved to the Gulf Coast.
  • November: All that will or can migrate have left the United States. It’s about this time, Elliott adds, that the rufous will begin moving into the Eastern states.

The top 5 reasons you don’t have hummingbirds

Elliott, Theodorou and Watson offer their top reasons hummers may not be showing up at feeders:

  1. The nectar is not fresh. It should be changed twice a week.
  2. Feeders are put out before optimal time for peak activity.
  3. Feeders are decorative but not functional.
  4. Not enough feeders.
  5. Ants are getting into the feeders because there isn’t a moat.

Nectar reminders

Sugar water solution: The ratio is four parts water to one part sugar.

Additives: None, and that includes red food dye or honey.

ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris
A male ruby-throated hummingbird feeds at a hibiscus flower. Steve Byland/Shutterstock

What else do hummingbirds like?

If you have room for a garden or even a few pots, Watson suggests creating a natural hummingbird habitat with one or more of these plants:

  • Pineapple sage
  • Agastache
  • Black and blue salvia
  • Lantana
  • Bee balm
  • Fuschia
  • Trumpet vine
  • Hibiscus
  • Shrimp plant
  • Cigar plant