Should You Boil the Water When Making Hummingbird Food?

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If you have hummingbird feeders in your yard, then you are probably making your own nectar. One of the most common questions I see when it comes to making your own hummingbird food is, should you boil the water? The answer is you can if you want to, but no it is not necessary. 

Should You Boil The Water When Making Hummingbird Food?

I’ve seen a lot of debate around this topic. Audubon says;

“It’s not necessary to boil the water, but keep any extra nectar refrigerated, and empty the feeder every few days, more often in hot weather.”

There are three main reasons why people think boiling the water used to make nectar is necessary. Let’s do a little investigating into these ideas. Here are the bullet points, and below we will deep dive each one. 

Key Takeaways

  • As long as the water from your tap is safe for you to drink, it will be safe for hummingbirds. Boiling is not necessary to remove additional impurities. However if you use bottles or filtered water for drinking instead of your tap for safety reasons, you should also use that for your nectar.
  • Hummingbirds contaminate the nectar just by sticking their beaks in it to drink. Therefore boiling ahead of time to try and start off with a “sterile” slate and avoid spoilage doesn’t make a significant difference.
  • It takes time to wait for water to boil, and then for the nectar to cool off to room temperature after mixing. It usually is not worth all this extra time, and sugar at the proper 1:4 ratio will dissolve in room temperature water within a few minutes if stirred. 

hummingbird drinking from nectar feeder

Does boiling water for hummingbird nectar remove impurities?

We all know tap water isn’t 100% pure and may contain small amounts of impurities. Some people believe that these impurities can cause injury to hummingbirds and boiling the water makes it safer for them to consume.

Boiling water can get rid of microorganisms and can help dissipate chlorine, but won’t remove much else. Municipal tap water has to follow strict guidelines to ensure it is treated and filtered to be safe for human consumption. 

Of course, a hummingbird’s body and a human body are not the same thing. But in-depth studies have not been done to determine precise “safe consumption levels” for hummingbirds of various water impurities. However Audubon, hummingbird rehabilitators and other reputable organizations agree that if your tap water is safe for you to drink, it is safe for hummingbirds too.  

Water quality does matter

I know there may be some of you who choose not to drink water straight from your tap. Each house is different and you may have local issues with hard water, well water, high iron content, high chlorine or other known pollutants. If you use an alternative water source for drinking in your home (bottled water, filtered water etc), then please use that same water for making your nectar. 

That’s a pretty safe rule of thumb to go by, only make nectar with water that you would be comfortable drinking.

Will boiling the water keep nectar fresh longer?

Hummingbird nectar can spoil rather quickly, especially in hot weather. The warm, high sugar environment is a breeding ground for mold, fungus and bacteria.  These microorganisms eat and digest sugar, creating by-products like acids and alcohols. Nectar can become cloudy, stringy, discolored and unsafe for hummingbird consumption. In extremely hot weather this can happen with 1-2 days! 

This makes the idea of boiling your water sound smart, in order to sterilize your nectar and kill off any potential microorganisms. The problem here is, even the most sterile nectar won’t stay sterile for long.

As soon as you bring it outside, the feeding ports bring the nectar into contact with air, which can carry any number of contaminants, fungus and mold spores. But even more than that, the hummingbirds themselves contaminate the nectar!

Hummingbird with pollen on it’s beak| image by Becky Matsubara via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

A hummingbirds bill is not a clean surface. They stick it into flowers and get pollen all over it, wipe their bill on branches and leaves, clean their feathers and pick off mites and dirt with it, catch bugs….you get the idea. Naturally they carry little bits of bacteria and other microorganisms on their bill, which they then stick into the nectar at your feeder several times per day. 

So there really is no point in boiling the water to extend the life of the nectar, because the act of a hummingbird drinking from your feeder is immediately going to contaminate it. 

Do you need to boil the water to make the sugar dissolve?

Unless you are using very cold water, dissolving the sugar should not be a problem. Lukewarm water from the tap and stirring or shaking should dissolve the sugar in just a minute or two. Remember, you should only be using plain white table sugar. These crystals are usually fairly small, and sometimes you can even find “extra fine” grains. Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute says

“No, the water for your nectar does not need to be boiled. Just be sure to stir or shake your mixture until the sugar is fully dissolved in the water.”

I like to use a pitcher and spoon. Put the water in the pitcher first, then add the sugar slowly while stirring. It never takes me more than a few minutes to get the sugar dissolved. In fact, it will likely take you longer waiting for the water to boil than to just stir the mixture yourself.

Some people find using 2 cups of hot tap water to dissolve the sugar, then adding 2 cups cold tap water to bring the solution to room temperature works well. (Remember your sugar to water ratio is 1:4)

Plus, you don’t want to put super hot nectar into your feeders. You could risk warping the plastic on the feeder or burning the hummingbirds tongue. So you would need to spend even more time waiting for the nectar to cool to room temperature before refilling the feeder if you boil it. 

If you do boil, remember these important tips

If despite everything I’ve said here it just makes you feel better to boil your water, that’s ok! Just make sure you look out for these two things – 

  • Keep the proper ratio. If you measure your water before boiling it, too much of it may evaporate during the boiling process and end up throwing off your measurement, resulting in a nectar where the sugar content is too high. Make sure you boil slightly more water than you need, then measure it out after you are finished boiling to ensure the proper 1 part sugar to 4 parts water ratio.
  • Let it cool before filling your feeders. As we mentioned above, if the nectar is near boiling when you refill your feeder, you could risk melting the feeder if it’s plastic. Or worse, injuring a hummingbirds tongue and therefore it’s ability to feed. Always allow the nectar to cool to room temperature first. 

Conclusion

The safest thing you can do for your hummingbirds is to make sure your nectar and feeders are clean and unspoiled. Sometimes people don’t change their nectar often enough because they feel they don’t have time. Hopefully by showing that you don’t have to boil the water, you’ll see you can create a new batch of nectar in just a few minutes and you’ll be able to put out fresh nectar more often. 

About Melanie

Melanie has been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and photographing birds of all types.