by Rebecca Rockefeller
Mix Up Your Own Nectar for Happy Hummingbirds
If you’ve never put out a hummingbird feeder, this might be a perfect year to start. There’s no need to buy nectar or nectar mix from a store – Making your own is easy and inexpensive.
Hummingbirds can be found in North, Central, and South America (Hawaii has hummingbird moths but none of the feathered variety, either native or introduced), and although they may seem delicate, they’re quite fierce and sturdy for such tiny creatures – Watch the PBS Nature episode “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air” and you’ll be eager to entice some of these incredibly agile predators to your yard. If you’re new to feeding the little zippers, you can look up which hummingbird(s) are in your state in this handy chart.
What you’ll need:
- White sugar. It must be classic refined white sugar. “Raw” or brown sugar or any other kind of sweetener, including honey and molasses, can be dangerous or even lethal for hummingbirds. Hummingbirds have evolved to store iron, which is present in very low levels in natural nectar; if you use a sweetener with even slightly higher iron levels, their bodies hoard this excess iron, which can lead to fatal iron toxicity in their tiny bodies. So yes, even if you’d never use white sugar in your own food, it’s the only safe sweetener for hummingbirds. As a bonus, it’s frequently sold in paper bags that can be reused or recycled, making DIY nectar a zero waste “food.”
- Clean, fresh water. If your tap water is safe for human consumption, it’s safe for hummingbirds, too. There is NO need to boil the water unless you’re under a boil water advisory from your local health department; then you’ll need to do that for the birds, too. Spending energy to “sterilize” the water will be a waste of your time and money; the very first time a bird sips from the fresh nectar, it will no longer be sterile. Please, don’t use bottled water – Not only will you be spending a crazy amount and generating a lot of single-use plastic waste, there’s a good chance that the bottled water is just tap water from another city. Why pay for high prices for tap water when you can get it from your own sink as part of your monthly water bill.
- A feeder that you can and will clean. This is the hardest part of feeding hummingbirds, but with a good feeder design, it’s not onerous. Many people find the saucer style of feeder, such as these from Hummzinger, the easiest to clean. When you’re shopping for a feeder, whether in the store or via your local Freecycle group, take the feeder apart and make sure you’ll be able to access every nook and cranny. Clean your feeders with baking soda and white vinegar (scrub with the baking soda then rinse with the vinegar), followed by a final rinse in clean water.
- A safe spot to hang the feeder. If you have cats and other local predators, pick a spot high enough that the hummingbirds will be able to sip in peace, without unseen threats ending their fast-flying days.
What you won’t need:
- Red dye or any sort. Seriously. It’s not necessary. It’s not healthy. If you want some extra red on your feeder, tie a bit of red ribbon to its handle. Once your feeder has been discovered, the birds will have no trouble at all remembering it and coming back for more, no red required.
Mix up a batch of nectar – It’s important to use this basic ratio: 4 parts water to 1 part white sugar:
- 2 cups cold tap water
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 4 cups cold tap water
- 1 cup white sugar
- Stir the sugar into the water until the sugar is completely dissolved. Don’t use hot tap water – It’s more likely to have gathered lead or other heavy metals during the heating, and that’s no good for hummingbirds (or humans). It really won’t take all that long for sugar to dissolve in cold water; if you want to cut that amount of stirring down even more, though, just let the sugar sit in the cold water for a few minutes on its own first.
- Fill your clean feeder and set it out for the birds to discover.
- Store any unused nectar in a clean glass jar in your fridge for up to 1 week.
- Change the nectar in the feeder as soon as it looks cloudy. In hot weather, this may take only a day or two, while nectar can last up to a week in the feeder during the cold winter months.
That’s all there is to it. If you can’t bring yourself to buy and use refined white sugar, or if it’s going to be hard to keep the feeders clean and filled with fresh “nectar,” or if you’d just plain prefer a more natural feeding option, plant a hanging basket – Check this list for perfect hanging basket plants to attract hummingbirds. It may be a bit more difficult to see them, and it won’t work so well during the winter months, but they’ll be happy and healthy all summer, slurping up the natural nectar.
If you have a favorite feeder or hummingbird story, please let us know! If you’re looking for other frugal bird feeder ideas, visit our app and search for bird feeder ideas.