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What's Important to Know About Hummingbird Feeders


by Jon Friedman

This is a revised and expanded version of an article that was first published in
the March/April, 1994 issue of The Wild Bird Store Newsletter.

We are now well into our third decade of serving our customers and informing our readers about the birds they want to attract to their backyard feeding stations. This article will serve as a basic, concise yet comprehensive review of what makes a good hummingbird feeder. We believe the more you know, the better your selection will fit both your considerations and those of the hummingbirds you can attract. Suffice it to say, the liquid solution you provide the hummer should be the most important decision and we strongly encourage those who attract and feed hummers to use and follow the instructions printed on the label of the nectar we manufacture and sell as opposed to any commercial nectar or any homemade sugar water solution. Never use a liquid solution that is not clear as water. The addition of coloring, particularly red food color, is now understood to be potentially harmful to hummers, even enough to shorten their already short lifespans. If you have any doubt as to what to provide your hummingbirds, always err in favor of the birds. We believe this is the first, and most important, decision to make if you are feeding hummingbirds in a beneficial way that causes no harm.

Overall considerations
There are several considerations when choosing a new hummingbird feeder. Foremost are size or capacity, design type, materials used, ease of maintenance and cleaning, price, and manufacturer’s guarantee.  Most other considerations are secondary and determined by personal preferences. Also keep in mind that the hummingbirds only care that the feeder has fresh nectar in it. They couldn’t care less what it looks like or the materials used in its manufacture. Once they discover any feeder and become familiar with it, they will return for years to come.

Size/capacity of feeders
The sizes of a feeder will determine its capacity. Any feeder is usually available in a variety of sizes. 8, 12, 16, 24 and 36 ounce are the most common. We also carry 4-, 6-, and 8-ounce sizes for those who don’t need larger feeders. For those who attract and feed larger numbers of hummers, or live close to major migratory routes, we also carry 16-, 32-, 48- and 80-ounce feeders. We always suggest that having several smaller feeders – separated by distance and preferable out of each other’s sight – always proves superior to having a single large model. Fierce territoriality will otherwise enable a single adult male to dominate the larger feeder, while multiple smaller models that are spread about will allow more hummers to feed in peace.   

Design types: Pan or vacuum
All hummingbird feeders are either pan (or saucer) designs or vacuum designs. There are no other design types available to the public. Each type is easily recognizable at a glance.

Pan type
All pan type feeders will feature a nectar well beneath the food ports. They are usually flat-bottomed and feature a brass hanger that extends upward 6” to 8” from the center of the feeder. Feeder designs of this type are considered superior as they will not leak, drip, or spill under normal conditions. They will withstand even the strongest gusts of winds without losing any nectar. Since the nectar is 100% contained inside the feeder and the outside of the feeder remains dry, these feeders are dependably bee- and wasp-proof. The best of these feeders offer a nectar guard tip as an accessory which absolutely guarantees that they remain bee- and wasp-proof. All pan type models have a perch ring around the circumference which prevents the hummers from expending more energy than needed to feed.

Ant barriers
Most pan type feeders have a moat or insect barrier built into the central design. This moat is a cup-like structure located in the center of the feeder and serves two purposes. First it makes the feeder inaccessible to ants and any other crawling insects that might otherwise be attracted. The interior of the moat can be filled with water. Ants and other crawling insects cannot swim and therefore will not attempt to cross over the moat. Water, however, will evaporate in a relatively short time so water will have to be replenished two or three times a week in order to remain effective. For longer lasting effectiveness, fill the moat with finely ground cinnamon or finely ground hot chili powder. These dry powders can get wet and dry for months, over and over again, before having to be replenished. The ants have sensors on their feet and they will not step into these powders. So the built-in ant barriers actually serve as a very effective insect barrier. They repel ants and other crawling bugs away from the feeder without harming, trapping, or killing the insects. They simply deny access. Used as recommended, they will prove 100% effective. Filling the built-in ant barrier with water and hanging one of our hand-crafted ant barriers above the feeder with either powder enables the powder-filled barrier to continue hanging in place while the built-in barrier can be cleaned easily and quickly when changing the nectar twice a week.

Secondly, the built-in ant barriers are designed to allow rainwater to pass through the feeder without diluting the nectar contained within. They are designed to allow a small amount of water to fill the bottom of the ant barrier to help keep insects under control. However, once the amount of water inside the barrier exceeds its normal capacity, excess water is channeled through the feeder and empties from the bottom.

The Wild Bird Store manufactures and sells an ant barrier that is constructed from recycled materials (35mm film canister and solid copper wire) for gravity-fed feeders. They have two hooks built into their design (one above the barrier and one below) so that the ant barrier can be connected to any hanging hook and the feeder itself is suspended underneath the barrier. Filled and installed properly, they are 100% effective in preventing ants and other crawling bugs from gaining access to the feeder.

Another nice feature of pan feeders is that most of these models have a built-in pole mount incorporated into the center of the flat bottom of the feeder. This enables more versatility in locating the feeder. Models with this feature can be either hung from a hook or mounted on a pole for extra stability.

Vacuum type
Vacuum type feeders are commonly referred to as gravity-fed feeders. They all feature a nectar reservoir, usually a bottle of some sort, which is screwed into the center of the base of the feeder. Once inverted and placed into position the nectar is simply fed into the base (where the food ports are located) by gravity. The base is carefully designed to provide a vacuum of air, a simple airspace of no less than half an inch between the underside of the food port and the surface of the nectar level, to prevent leaking and attracting bees and wasps to the feeder. It’s designed to be self-regulating and will operate without problems as long as the vacuum remains intact. This is where this design proves secondary to the pan type feeders. The vacuum can be disturbed or even lost for a variety of reasons. The most probable causes of vacuum loss occur as a result of the feeder being blown around in wind gusts, large birds or other animals trying to use the feeder, daytime/nighttime temperature swings of 40 degrees or more,  or quick barometric swings such as before and after storms. If the vacuum is lost, for whatever reason, the feeder can develop a slow leak or a steady leak which can attract bees, wasps, other insects, and even birds that would not otherwise be able to access the nectar. Most people who comment that woodpeckers drain their feeders have gravity-fed feeders. Pan type feeders, especially those that have nectar guard tips installed, rarely have any such problems. Vacuums can be reset after washing off nectar on the outside of the feeder and rehanging the feeder. Many folks start with vacuum feeders as their initial feeder but switch over to pan feeders as they are easier to clean and refill, and they don’t have the problems associated with gravity-fed feeders.

Materials used in feeder manufacture

UV stable Polycarbonate. The best of the pan type feeders all offer good guarantees, some even lifetime guarantees. How can a manufacturer offer such a guarantee in this day and age when most products on the market are designed for relatively short life spans, use lesser quality materials, and therefore need to be replaced often? These better quality pan type feeders are constructed of clear, durable, UV-stable polycarbonate – the strongest, most optically clear plastic on the market. The UV stabilizers perform two functions. They prevent the damaging rays of sunlight from degrading the quality of the material and enable that material to last many, many years – even in the strong, punishing Arizona sunlight. The second function is to delay the sun’s rays from spoiling the nectar too quickly. It acts like a filtering agent and prevents the UV rays from penetrating the nectar. This material is commonly used in optical lens of every sort: microscopes, telescopes, spotting scopes, binoculars, and even eyeglasses. The “bullet-proof glass” that separates you from the teller at banks is actually polycarbonate. This material is stronger than glass, more scratch-proof, practically unbreakable, and, when used as a lens, is finely ground and polished until its overall qualities are superior to glass. It also weighs just a fraction of what glass weighs. The metal hangers used in pan feeders are also superior metal: stainless steel or solid brass. Feeders made to such high standards are clearly superior to other materials, outlast any other materials, and are UV-stable, and therefore the manufacturers are not hesitant to offer lifetime guarantees. They may cost a little more than most other feeders on the market but they have been the most popular hummingbird feeders we have sold for almost twenty-five years. They are popular with our customers for other reasons, too. They are the easiest feeders to maintain. Cleaning and refilling them is simpler than with gravity-fed models, which require properly sized bottle brushes. UV-stable polycarbonate is tough enough to go on the top shelf of your kitchen dishwasher. Even though the highest quality of these pan type feeders usually costs a little more to purchase, the lifetime guarantee ensures it’s a one-time purchase – therefore a more cost-effective purchase. Lesser quality feeders need to be replaced more often and the repeated cost of buying cheap feeders proves more expensive in the long run. And let’s not forget to consider the advantages these feeders offer the hummingbirds that use them.

Hummingbirds, given the choice, will more often choose fresh nectar from pan feeders, as they help conserve the hummer’s energy by offering it a built-in perch while drinking. Without a perch they can use about as much energy by hovering above the food ports….as what?. By providing a perch, the balance of energy expended is certainly in the hummingbird’s favor. Another important aspect to consider is that the perched hummingbird has a clear 360-degree view from the vantage point of any food port. This enables the hummingbirds to survey the surrounding area while keeping a sharp eye out for competitors and predators. With bottle feeders, they take a sip of nectar and fly backwards and upwards to gain the same perspective since their view at port-level is obstructed by the nectar bottle. This also forces the hummingbirds to expend more energy than necessary. Excess energy expenditure can quickly put the hummingbird into a dangerous situation. They simply feel more secure and safer using the pan feeders.

Glass. Some of the least expensive and some of the most expensive feeders are constructed from glass. Less expensive glass is cast and usually clear while the more expensive glass is hand-blown. Hand-blown glass can be clear but more often is brightly colored and more decorative as a result. Both types of glass have their vulnerabilities. Both can be damaged or broken unless handled very carefully. Hand-blown glass feeders tend to be the most expensive on the market. They are almost always gravity fed, often with a tube and stopper to deliver the nectar. Most manufacturers are more concerned with the visual appearance, i.e. they are trying to make a beautiful looking feeder, than with making a practical feeder. Consequently, their poor design invites the leaking and dripping that are inevitable with most feeders that fit this description. The Wild Bird Store created a line of colorful glass hummingbird feeders that do have tube and stopper feeders, but we’ve taken into account the problems other feeders of this sort have and designed them so that they don’t leak and spill and therefore don’t attract bees and wasps.

I have never encountered or heard about glass feeders that have UV stabilizers in the glass. If glass hummingbird feeders are installed in direct sunlight, especially in the extra hot afternoon Arizona sun, they need to have the nectar changed more frequently than every 3 days. They should be located in a place where they get full, dense shade – especially during the afternoons in our hotter weather. Glass feeders are not as easy or quick to maintain and clean. They always require the right size bottle brush to effectively clean them.

Ceramic. Mass produced, inexpensive ceramic feeders should be avoided as they are fraught with an array of problems. Hand-built ceramic feeders usually are better designed and constructed than mass manufactured feeders. They have many of the qualities of glass but will protect the nectar from fermentation as quickly as glass [this doesn’t make any sense] due to the fact they are opaque. Ceramic material is usually thicker than glass so they tend to be less fragile, but could break if dropped or banged around. Glass has an additional advantage over ceramic in that glass is transparent and allows viewing the nectar while ceramic has to be checked more carefully as you can’t see the amount left in the feeder. Like glass feeders, ceramic feeders usually require a bottle brush to insure proper cleaning. Hand-crafted ceramic feeders tend to be more expensive than others, but they usually have more eye appeal.

Plastic. There are many varieties of plastic available on the commercial market. The best plastic worth considering is UV-stable polycarbonate. There are only a few plastics that will hold up to our extreme weather, especially our exceptionally damaging sunlight. The Wild Bird Store features the polycarbonate feeders as the most durable, longest lived, and best value. We do stock several models that use other types of plastic and we know they will hold up for several years. They are made with exceptionally thick plastic material. The styrene and polypropylene plastics are better than all other plastics, except the polycarbonates. All other plastics are extremely short-lived and neither cost effective nor practical. As they are almost always gravity-fed, they typically have all the problems associated with the worst hummingbird feeder designs. These are the common and familiar feeders found in discount stores, big box stores, franchises, and chain stores. You probably have seen these same feeders in supermarkets and hardware stores. Perky Pet and Opus brands tend to dominate the low quality and low cost end of the market. Both of these lines are manufactured in China. When people complain about these low end, low cost feeders I remind them that, in most instances, you get what you pay for. This is probably true no matter what item you purchase. It is more cost-effective to buy a higher quality product once, knowing that it gives many years of service and satisfaction, than to pay a little less for a lower quality product that needs to be replaced every so often and can be problematic in its everyday use.

Metals. Occasionally someone brings in a feeder made of metal that they are experiencing problems with. It was either a hand-crafted model, typically bought at a craft/street fair, or it came from one of the larger discount stores. Most hummingbird feeders will have some metal in the design, but usually the metal parts serve as the hanger or perch. Feeders that are designed so that the nectar is in contact with metal should be avoided. In such cases, the metal will corrode over time and spoil or taint the nectar. They are much harder to keep clean and bacteria-free.

Window Hummingbird Feeders. Window feeders can be either pan or vacuum type feeders that attach to glass with UV stable suction cups. We carry several models from companies that we feel offer the best quality products. Not only are the cups protected from the damaging rays of the sun but the feeders themselves are usually UV-stable polycarbonate, the single best material a manufacturer can use. In addition to models ready to install on windows, we also stock UV-stable polycarbonate window brackets. These brackets have the highest quality suction cups and are designed to hold up to five pounds. Virtually every hummingbird feeder, even when filled to capacity, will weigh considerably less than that. So if you have, or want, a model that is not designed to be installed directly onto the window, you can combine any model with one of the window brackets and turn any model into a window model in this way.

Recommended Feeders
The Wild Bird Store specializes in offering information, service, and products for hummingbird aficionados. We routinely offer about 60 models of hummingbird feeders in all types. Naturally we recommend feeders which we have field-tested and observed ourselves before adding them to our inventory. We stock examples of every type on the market. Generally speaking, we suggest buying products that are made in the USA. They will always be preferable to products made in China or other countries. You can read our strict Made in the USA policy on our wildbirdsonlione.com website, where we detail the major reasons why less than 1% of our stock is made outside the USA.

Pan feeders. The highest quality pan feeders are made of UV-stable polycarbonate or acrylic material. Our favorite line of feeders to offer customers are those models designed and manufactured by Aspects, in Warren, Rhode Island. Simply put, we believe they are the best on the market and offer the humans who own them and the birds that use them the best of everything with no known drawbacks. All their models come with an unconditional lifetime guarantee. We also stock some of the Droll Yankee feeders (made in Connecticut) and models from Bird’s Choice (made in Wisconsin). We stock both the Aspects window model, called the Jewel Box, and a couple of window models from Bird’s Choice. Both companies offer pan type window feeders.

Vacuum or gravity fed feeders. Dr. J.B.’s line of hummingbird feeders are, we believe, the best of this type of feeder. They are manufactured in Mexico, Missouri by Songbird Essentials. They feature extra thick and extremely durable patented plastic material, both for the base and the clear nectar reservoir. The bases are exactly the same bases on all models, so they are easily interchangeable. They come in 16-, 32-, 48-, and 80-ounce capacities. These feeders are also the best for feeding our migrant nectar-eating bats. They have tiny food ports for use by hummers during the day and those same food ports can easily be removed for use by bats in the evening.

Glass feeders. The Hummingbird Lantern feeder, by Gary Schrodt of Ashville, Oregon has long proved to be among the more popular glass feeders we offer. Constructed with a ruby red Italian wine bottle as the nectar reservoir and sandwiched between a recycled redwood top and base, this feeder offers a practical and functional vessel for hummingbirds to use and is among the most visually pleasing and beautiful feeders we offer.

The Wild Bird Store is the only authorized source for the popular Webster Feeder. This is an accurate reproduction of the first hummingbird feeder made by humans for the sole intended use by hummingbirds. It was introduced to the market in 1928 and today’s version looks remarkably similar in design and size. We have recently introduced a fancier, more colorful model for our contemporary era. They are made exclusively, in Tucson, for The Wild Bird Store by well-known glass artist John Mims.

For several years we have been creating our own line of colorful, glass bottle feeders. These feeders come in a variety of sizes and colors, are made from 99% recycled Spanish glass, and feature hand-wrapped solid copper wire tendrils that act as a holder for the feeders. They feature tube and stopper food ports that are drip-free and bee-proof. They are made by and for the Wild Bird Store exclusively.

Holland Hill glass vial feeders are favorites for hummers, particularly with optional perches installed. They come in a variety of styles featuring single, double, triple, five- and eight-tube feeders. They come as window or hanging models. Additionally, they offer a Hummingbird Wand feeder. This model has a built-in hook for hanging but can also be used as a hand-held feeder. It comes with a built-in perch. Each of the models features a small glass vial that slips into a copper tendril holder. Made in Mexico, Missouri by Songbird Essentials.

The Garden Jewel hummingbird feeder, by Opus, has been on the market for decades. About the size of a goose egg, it has a ten ounce capacity. It is one of the few products we sell that is made in China. About average in performance, it has no really outstanding features other than its familiarity to generations of folks who have used it. It is a lower cost model and therefore needs more protection than most feeders.

Dr. J.B.’s 16ounce model is the smallest capacity model they offer and the only one with a glass nectar reservoir.

Best 1 hummingbird feeders, made in Texas, had been a staple in our inventory for almost 25 years. We’ve sold many thousands of their 8- and 32-ounce models. However, we decided to no longer carry their line of products, beginning about a year ago or so. While they were among the handful of vacuum type feeders that were relatively low cost and relatively problem-free, the quality of their products took a noticeable downturn in recent times. Customers began complaining and returning their Best 1 models and the replacements were still plagued with the same problems. We no longer stock this brand for this reason. We stand behind the products we sell and we prefer to not sell products with potential problems. Even after the owner assured us the problems were addressed and corrected, and these feeders have generally had a reputation for providing years of trouble-free use, we had to regretfully delete them from our inventory. If you still own and operate a Best 1 feeder, and it was bought more than 18 months ago, there’s a good chance it will continue to serve your hummingbirds for years to come. They usually perform well for at least a decade. But we no longer carry the feeders or replacement parts.

Additional tips about hummingbirds and hummingbird feeders

  • Have patience! Always allow ample time for birds to discover your feeder and become familiar with using it. This is particularly true for birds that arrive in your yard for the first time, are not familiar with the exact feeder you are using, or babies learning how to use a feeder for the first time, etc. Patience is always rewarded.
  • Avoid buying hummingbird feeders that feature yellow food ports as the color yellow attracts bees (that means Africanized bees for those in Southern Arizona).
  • Avoid sugar water and commercial nectars that have red coloring. For the best, safest, most beneficial and cost-effective results, use the Wild Bird Store Nectar in 12-ounce, 3-and 6-pound packages.
  •  If you have an old vacuum type feeder that attracts bees, try using plain, clear mineral oil (not any other type of oil) to bee-proof the feeder. This is a temporary solution for bees and will have to be repeated at least as often as you clean and refill the feeder. Using your finger or a Q-tip, swab a liberal amount of mineral oil all around each food port. Bees and wasps will not land on a surface coated with mineral oil. Only mineral oil works effectively in this regard; no other type of oil will repel or defeat bees that are determined to get nectar as well. Repeat daily for best results or, better yet, buy a bee-proof, wasp-proof, and ant-proof feeder and never deal with bees again.
  • A single feeder can be hung or installed anywhere your viewing is best. Hummers will use any feeder as long as they can see and find it. For multiple feeders, and to avoid or lessen territorial disputes, strategically locate your feeders in different areas of your yard, preferably out of sight of each other, and stagger the heights of the feeders above ground so no two feeders are the same height.
  • In any given year’s cycle of time, there’s going to be an ebb and flow in the number of hummers that use your feeders. There are a number of factors that affect the number of hummers you attract. Some days, weeks, and months of the year you may notice more or fewer hummers than during the previous period. You may experience more hummers when natural foods in the wild are scarce, during incoming migration periods, during nesting season, or due to normal weather patterns, lack of habitat, etc. Likewise you may notice fewer hummers when natural foods in the wild (insects and nectar) are more abundant, when storms or other extreme weather situations interfere with their daily routines, when predators are nearby, etc.
  • Hummingbirds will not use birdhouses as many other species do. However, if you want to encourage hummingbird nesting, we sell Dan True’s Hummingbird House. It’s not actually a house in the normal sense, but rather it is a scientifically engineered nesting platform that offers hummers an ideal artificial branch upon which they can build and anchor their nest. They come two to a box and have about an 80% success rate. These nesting platforms provide the birds with suitable nesting opportunities when yards lack habitat or when having several nests in your yard is the objective.
  • The color of the feeder is insignificant compared to using good nectar and keeping it fresh, which means changing and rinsing at least twice a week. While the vast majority of factory-made models have the color red in their design and manufacture, the fact is hummers will frequent feeders of any color, even a completely clear feeder with no color. The only color to avoid on any hummingbird feeder is the color yellow.

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