Why Hummingbird Feeders Are a Terrible Idea

Posted by on Aug 3, 2017 in birds, Unmowed Blog, wildlife | 13 comments

Everyone loves hummingbirds. It’s wonderful to watch these magical birds levitating on the porch and zooming like little feathered drones through the garden.

But if you’re going to feed hummingbirds, think carefully about what food you’re offering to these tiny, fragile bodies. Give them nourishment, not poison.

More and more, research is showing that red dyes in artificial nectar are terrible for hummingbirds. You wouldn’t want to constantly drink water dyed bright red. Don’t feed it to your little feathered buddies.

It’s hard to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt  that red dye is killing hummingbirds, but I believe the many wildlife rehabilitators who report weakened hummingbirds with red-colored droppings. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states: “There is very compelling anecdotal information from experienced, licensed rehabbers that hummers who have been fed dyed food have higher mortality and suffer tumors of the bill and liver.”

But there’s another problem with hummingbird feeders. (Sorry to be such a downer but I’m feeling cranky this morning.) They’re not for the lazy. They’re not for the casual, sloppy, less-than-perfect housekeeper. They’re not for people like me.

All reputable sources (the Audubon Society, Cornell, and the National Wildlife Federation, to name only a few) agree that hummingbird feeders must be properly maintained. You can’t just stick them on the porch and forget about them. You have to be vigilant. Because the stakes are high–not for you, but for the hummingbirds.

Sugary water is an excellent medium for the growth of pathogens, which means it easily develops mold and mildew. And black mold can cause a horrid infection in hummers. It’s called candidiasis, and it causes a swollen tongue, leading to a death of slow starvation. It can also be transmitted from an infected mother hummingbird to her nestful of youngsters when she feeds them…okay, I’ll stop. It’s too horrid to contemplate.

So, you have to clean the feeder. A lot. Every two days in hot weather. Here’s what one bird seed company’s website advises: “Disassemble the feeder as much as possible so every nook and cranny can be effectively cleaned, and use small scrub brushes to be sure corners and crevices are all cleaned. Allow the feeder to dry completely before refilling, which will help minimize any residual contamination. At the same time, take a few moments to wipe down feeder hooks and poles and wash away any drips or spills below where the feeder hangs…”

Are you kidding me?

How many people actually take the trouble to do all that? Personally, I’m just too lazy. I have trouble keeping my own dirty dishes washed. Just ask my family, whose frequent complaints about greasy forks and cloudy glasses I breezily ignore. But the thought that I might miss a corner and leave a speck of mold to contaminate the artificial nectar is why I’ll never feed hummingbirds–with a plastic feeder.

Listen, I love hummingbirds. I love them so much that I spend a lot of time in the garden, ministering to their finicky appetites by planting the kinds of flowers they love: Bee balm. Phlox. Anything bright colored (especially red) with tube-shaped flowers. I deck my porch with hanging baskets of fuchsia and geraniums.

And it’s not just about the nectar. I also leave plenty of room at the edges of the lawn for unmowed spots where hummingbirds can get the protein they need. It’s not all about nectar, they also feed on small spiders and little insects.

Another thing that birds really really need, especially in summer, is water. Plain old H2O. So if you hang a hummingbird feeder on a hot day, think about skipping the sugar and just adding water. Dehydration can be a greater threat than starvation for many birds.

We all want to see hummingbirds for many years to come. It’s such a wonderful sight to show kids, to lure them into being excited about nature. But if you want to hang something on your porch that’s red and sweet and will nourish many happy, healthy hummers, be prepared for a lot of scrubbing. Or think about what hummingbirds have evolved to thrive on. Flower nectar from real flowers.


  1. Have been feeding the Humming birds for years, have always made sure the feeders are sterilized between fillings. We live a mile high on the west slope of the Rockies. In spring if we have early arrivals accompanied by late heavy snow the feeders help survival. If you’re
    to lazy maintain cleanliness then put out feeders or obvious click bait articles !!

  2. Michael Scholl (unknowingly?) gives the right answer: “nature knows what’s best.”

  3. I never understood hummingbird feeders at all to begin with. It’s only logical to let them eat their natural food.

  4. I have eight hummingbird feeders and many flowering plants to attract and nurture the beauties. It is well worth the few minutes it takes to clean the feeders on a rotating basis regularly!

  5. Check it out! If you feel you’re too lazy to clean your hummingbird feeder often, then only put one cup of sugar-water (or less) in the feeder at a time. Depending on activity, the hummingbirds can consume the full cup within a couple of days, long before any bacterium can infect the little guys (but at least make a conscious effort to check the feeder within three days of filling it, just in case there is very little activity).

    Secondly, after reading this article, I did try using plain water to hydrate the hummingbirds and they didn’t even make a show of interest to the feeder. Goes to show, nature knows what’s best.

    Finally, I hope this encourages others to use their feeders. Hummingbirds are really fun to watch and cleaning a feeder regularly isn’t that big a deal. It’s well worth the effort.

    Many blessings!!!

    • Thank you for writing! I agree that feeders can be wonderful, as long as they’re properly cleaned. That’s interesting that they weren’t interested in plain water–maybe during a drought or in a very dry area they might need access to water more. Anyway, thanks for your insights.

  6. I don’t use feeders either but have several salvias and penstemons and other flowers for them.

  7. I make my own nectar with granulated sugar and water, I don’t add artificial color and I’m committed to change the water at least every 2 days. I have 8 feeders but I’m disappointed to see them fight, I didn’t know they’re Territorials.

    • Yes, it’s amazing how something so little can be so fierce.

  8. What can I grow to feed my hummers who come back every year.Thanks Sincerely Robert Browning

    • Think about trying bee balm (Monarda), which hummingbirds love. It’s native, easy to grow, and has a long blooming season. There are a couple of posts on this blog about it–search “bee balm.” Best of luck!

      • I had Monarda and they loved it.

    • zinna,trumble vine,whistler,butterflie scrub,the flowers dont have to be red

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