Cheap DIY Hummingbird Feeder

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This diagram shows you how to make your own hummingbird feeders out of old prescription vials.
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Jud Baker's DIY presctiption-vial hummingbird feeders attract hummingbirds better than store-bought feeders.

You can go out and spend good money (anywhere from 79 cents to $10 on a ready-made hummingbird feeder If you want, but you don’t have to. I know how you can make those feeders (from recycled materials) for no more than 3 cents to 5 cents each. And the final product is guaranteed to satisfy even the most finicky hummer. (Fact is, the hummingbirds that frequent our patio actually shun some “boughten” nectar dispensers in favor of my homemade ones!)

The secret of my feeders’ simplicity and cost is the ordinary 20-dram prescription vials that are available everywhere. (Seven-dram tubes will work, If you don’t mind refilling them all the time … and 16-dram vials are OK if they’re untinted. Unfortunately, the 16-dram containers are usually amber colored, and the color turns off the hummers.) You probably have some of these tubes on hand already. If not, they’ll cost you just 3 cents to 5 cents each set at your local drugstore.

How to Make Your Own Hummingbird Feeder

To fabricate one of my nectar dispensers, I need a clear (untinted) prescription vial with a tight-fitting cap, some transparent (e.g., Scotch) tape, and a few feet of thread or thin wire. You’ll also need an ice pick or some other sharp, pointed metal object.

Start by heating the ice pick (or other object) nearly red-hot and punching a pair of holes on opposite sides of the plastic vial near it’s open end (see diagram). Make sure the holes are (1) very close to — but not covered up by — the bottom of the cap when the cap is in place, and (2) extremely small, small enough to keep insects out (and liquid in). 

Now round up a couple feet of thread or fine wire and secure the ends of the thread (or wire) to the vial’s sides with scotch tape as shown. For extra holding power, fold the ends of the thread back over the tape and wrap a second piece of tape around the tube.

Thats basically all there is to it. Depending on how elaborate you want to get, you can fabricate just one or two of the feeders to hang up in the backyard … or you can assemble a number into a mobile similar to the own in the accompanying photo. I’ve found that the mobile makes for the most interesting bird watching and often attracts several hummers for what you might call a ‘family style” serving of nectar.

To fill one of the finished feeders, just take the cap off and hold the vial upright … then”top it off” with nectar, cap the container tightly, and quickly invert the tube (so the feeder’s “dribble holes” are at the bottom). A small amount of liquid may leak out of the feeder’s holes initially, but the leakage will stop as a vacuum is created inside the vial.

Nectar Requirements

Hummingbirds — which, individually, weigh barely more than a dime — expend a phenomenal amount of energy every day. And, to obtain this energy, the tiny birds consume incredible amounts of syrup. A single hummer, in fact, will drink about twice its weight in syrup (roughly 40 percent of its weight in pure sugar) every day.

Not that syrup from the feeder (or nectar from flowers) is the only kind of nourishment hummingbirds receive. The brightly colored little birds that frequent my feeders also relish a variety of insects (includlng aphids and mosquitoes). I’ve watched them (through binoculars) catch insects in the air and pluck bugs from nectar-bearing flowers. Still, it always amazes me how five or six little hummers can empty one of my 20-dram feeders in about an hour.

When it comes to making syrup for your tiny friends, you have basically two choices: (1) Buy a commercial nectar mix (the granulated kind, not a tablet type), or (2) make up your own sugar solution. (Incidentally, honey is not recommended as a syrup base. Tests have shown that a diet of straight honey can be weakening — or even fatal — to hummingbirds!)

The first route is the most convenient (and the most expensive). An 8-ounce package of “Instant Necta” costs around $1.25 in most pet supply shops or supermarkets and will make up to 48 ounces of feeding solution (more or less, depending on how sweet your birds like their drink). Those 48 ounces may or may not last a week if there are five or six hummers answering mess call.

Make Your Own Hummingbird Nectar

The alternative to buying prepackaged nectar mix is to make your own syrup. To do this, just stir four or five heaping teaspoons of granulated sugar into a cup of water along with enough red food coloring (vegetable dye, not “U.S. certified” petrochemicals) to give the resulting mixture a definite scarlet hue. The color is very important, because hummingbirds have no sense of smell and are attracted to nectar-bearing flowers (and feeders) by color alone.

Where to Hang Your Own Hummingbird Feeders

It’s generally a good idea to hang your feeder where it wont be exposed to direct sunlight, since (1) sugar solutions can ferment, and (2) sunlight tends to accelerate the fermentation process. Also, try to place the feeder where it won’t be shaken (and — perhaps — emptied) by wind or tree limb motion.

Some bird watchers maintain that the way to bring hummers to the patio is to hang a feeder near flowers that’ve already attracted the birds, then — over a period of several days or weeks — move the feeder progressively closer to the patio (or the place where it is hoped the birds will eventually hover and feed). That may be … but it didn’t happen that way in my garden. My birds came directly to the feeders at my patio (and in my camphor tree) right off the bat! With any luck, your little feathered friends should do the same.

Close Encounters With Hummingbirds

Interestingly, hummingbirds are very pugnacious. Shyness just isnt in their nature. It’s not a bit unusual — for instance — for one of my tiny visitors to hover within a few feet of my head while I’m hanging a refilled feeder. I wouldn’t be surprised if — someday — one of the birds perches momentarily on my head. (An acquaintance of mine swears he’s had hummers feed out of his hand.)

This, of course, is good news for the amateur photographer, because it means you can easily shoot close-ups of the birds without a telephoto lens. All you have to do is wait quietly, with your camera cocked, until the hummers pose (which I swear they’ll do) … then click the shutter. (Hint: Kodak Ektachrome Daylight film — with an ASA rating of 200 — is just right and will allow you to shoot at f/11 [an average daylight exposure] with a speed of 1/125th of a second [the minimum shutter speed … at faster speeds adjust your f stop accordingly]. This won’t stop the wing flutter … but you’re not going to do that anyway without expensive special equipment.)

A Bird Watcher’s Delight

If — like me — you enjoy watching hummingbirds close up, you’ll really love your prescriptlon-bottles-turned-feeders. They’ll bring your birds within easy viewing (and photographing) distance. . . and — as an added bonus — you’ll be able to hear the music the tiny birds make (perhaps to thank you, or to remind you to get their syrup to the perch on time).

Give prescription bottle hummingbird feeders a try — and you’ll never buy an expensive, store-bought nectar dispenser again.