Hummingbirds are awesome, and there’s no two ways about it. These tiny flittering jewels dart back and forth, the distinctive hum of their wings often your first clue that they’re nearby.
I’ve been lucky enough to come across a couple of hummingbird nests in my lifetime. They are the most delicate constructions made of spider webs with lichen and bark providing camouflage on the outside, and the eggs are so tiny that they almost defy imagination.
Most hummingbirds come readily to backyard feeders that offer sugar water. But suppose you want to experience the wonder of seeing the smallest eggs of any bird species? In that case, you may be curious whether you can convince a hummingbird to breed in your backyard.
As a trained biologist who has studied many bird species over my career, I understand the biology of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds don’t use houses to nest. Therefore, the trick to getting a hummingbird to nest in your backyard is understanding what hummingbirds need. I’ve used my knowledge of bird biology to tell you ways to get those hummingbirds to choose your backyard in the hopes that you can witness the awesomeness that is these little jewels of the sky.
For many cavity-nesting species, the need for appropriate nesting sites limits whether they will breed, which is why birdhouses work so well – they provide what is lacking in your backyard. However, hummingbirds rarely lack areas to build a nest. If your backyard doesn’t offer all the other things a nesting hummingbird requires, adding an artificial nesting structure won’t convince a hummingbird to stay.
Bottom Line Up Front
Hummingbirds don’t use houses. You will waste your money if you buy anything that is enclosed, so remove the thought of traditional birdhouses from your mind; any site advertising that enclosed boxes are appropriate for hummingbirds is misleading people, and images of hummingbirds near or inside them are likely photoshopped. However, hummingbirds may use platforms or other structures to nest on. Ultimately, it’ll be random luck whether they use a structure you provide versus a natural area to build a nest.
If you are lucky enough to have a nest built, remember that hummingbirds require a lot of energy to keep up their high metabolism, so please resist the temptation to approach nests closely; the adult will lose valuable energy if disturbed, and you may attract predators. Watch the nest from a distance with binoculars.
This is a bit of an odd guide, as very few non-enclosed designs are on the market. Again, any enclosed structure advertised as a hummingbird house will simply not work. Because of this, DIY options will be just as effective, and probably more fun, creative, and environmentally friendly than any option you can buy. This is why I start by suggesting a general DIY design, followed by store-bought options, all based on the known nesting requirements of hummingbirds.
Do It Yourself
Hummingbirds generally use a forked branch to build a nest. It makes the nest more secure, though there’s plenty of examples where they nest on a single branch as well. Since they secure their nest by weaving material around the branch, they generally won’t use a branch that’s much thicker than their nest. So you’ll be looking to use material that is no larger than 1″ in diameter.
There’s also no reason to add more plastic to our environment. I recommend using as much natural material as possible. There are a few options to accomplish this:
- Use deadfall. You can pick up some fallen branches from your yard or a natural area. However, it’s crucial that the branches are still sturdy and have not started to rot. If you can easily snap it with your hands, then it’s not suitable as a nest substrate.
- Trim an existing tree. As long as it doesn’t cause harm to the donor tree, you could cut a branch to use in a new location.
- Buy dowel from a hardware store. Dowel is not expensive, and you can pick the diameter you want, plus you’re guaranteed it’s not rotten.
You also want to create a fork, so either find deadfall or cut a branch with a smaller secondary branch, or be prepared to do some construction. There’s lots of information available about how to attach dowels together, so I won’t go into details here. In general, you’ll want your secondary piece to be smaller than the first, as you’ll likely drill a hole into your main dowel branch, preferably at about a 45-degree angle, then insert the smaller secondary dowel and screw it into place from the outside. Whatever method you choose, it has to result in a strong, secure connection.
Once you have your forked structure, you’ll need to choose a location to put it. Pick a non-windy location out of the direct sun. If you’re adding your structure to a tree, pick a spot closer to the trunk where the bird will be more protected.
Next, you need to attach your structure to the tree. Your best option is to use some type of metal clip. Find a clip that’s strong and will withstand the elements, plus is the right size to attach to the real tree branch. You’ll have to attach the base of the clip to your forked structure, probably with a screw. Then all you need to do is clip it onto the real tree branch, and you’re done!
The other option you can explore is attaching your structure to your house. How you do this will entirely depend on where exactly you want to put it, and what you have available as attachment points. You can screw or nail one end of your structure to something on your house. Alternatively, if you have a projection on your house, you can use all-weather tape to attach your structure to it. This works best if there’s some type of cover overhead, as hummingbirds won’t nest in the open.
Remember that hummingbirds are trying to hide their nest, so color and flair on your structure will drive them away. Instead, be creative in how safe you can make the nesting structure, and get into the mind of a hummingbird to figure out what they need to successfully raise young.
This structure appears to be a good design, as the metal frame does mimic a naturally forked tree branch. However, it has to be mounted under your eaves or other overhanging structure, and some hummingbird species may prefer a more open area directly above their nest. A location on a house may provide additional nest protection from the elements and predators.
It’s also unclear why the design would include an overhead ‘leaf’ structure (presumably made out of plastic) when the frame requires mounting under a structure that, by default, provides overhead protection.
Also, I am wary of websites claiming they have ‘proven’ their product works with certain species, as often this means they’ve seen one individual of that species using it once. However, if you’re willing to spend the money, there’s certainly the chance a hummingbird will use it.
- mimics natural forked tree branch
- no information given on installation requirements (included with purchase but not available on the website)
- requires that you have an appropriate place on a house to install it
This structure is a simple plastic cup-shaped clip-on ‘nesting ring,’ as it’s called in the product description. I’m a fan of the easy installation of this one, as all you need to do is clip it onto a branch. However, it’s unclear how sturdy the clip is and whether it would remain stable in high wind.
It also relies on you picking where you want the bird to nest. The odds are, you won’t choose a place that a hummingbird wants to use based on their requirements for protection from the elements, but it’s unlikely to hurt anything if you want to try it!
- easy to attach
- not an intact cup (has large holes for drainage)
- you may pick a bad place for a nest
- unclear how stable the clip is on a branch
I have mixed feelings about this, so it is the last on my list. The artificial branch for nesting is fine in and of itself; I have issues with the attached red plastic flower with nesting material. Hummingbirds don’t come to red objects to find nesting material; to them, red signals a flower with food, not, for example, spider silk or a safe place to nest. Additionally, a red flower may attract other hummingbirds and so cause fights with a nesting female.
While it’s ok to provide nesting material like cotton balls, make sure it is all-natural cotton (organic); pesticides will harm chicks.
- The artificial branch mimics a forked tree branch
- a red flower is not a nesting attractant and may cause fights
- unclear how stable the clip is on a branch
This is another type of artificial hummingbird structure that is available. This platform-based structure may entice a hummingbird to use it but doesn’t mimic a natural tree branch.
Do not place platforms like this without a drain hole out in the open. When it rains, the platform base will gather water, especially in the depression. If water cannot drain, the chicks will stay wet and die from the cold, or mold may grow. You must place a design like that where it cannot get wet, or you can drill holes into the nesting depression.
Place the platform under the eaves of your house, as high as you’re able, and on the shady/least windy side. This placement should reduce the ability of some predators to reach the nest and provide adequate protection from the elements, so if the bird chooses to nest there, the nest will hopefully be successful.
- stable structure
- no holes in nesting depression
- no information on how to refill the nesting material dispenser
First and foremost, you need to consider the health and safety of the hummingbird. Your job is to offer these birds the best nesting site possible and simply hope they will use it.
Do not buy any nesting structures that offer accompanying brightly-colored nesting material. Birds make a nest to camouflage the eggs and chicks; bright colors make it visible to predators.
Most hummingbirds like to nest fairly high up in trees, from 10 feet off the ground to upwards of 40 feet. This height means you’ll need a ladder to place an artificial hummingbird structure at a height that it’s likely to be used. Of course, sometimes individuals will nest lower, so you can also take your chances with an eye-height location.
Your best chance of attracting a nesting hummingbird is by making your backyard more attractive. If you don’t have the right conditions, then no offer of a platform or artificial branches will entice a hummingbird to stay and nest. Remember hummingbird nests are susceptible to environmental disturbance (wind, excessive sun, and rain) and predators (think cats and other small mammals, snakes, and larger birds).
Hummingbirds have the highest metabolic rate of any animal. That means they need a lot of food. Their primary food is nectar, but they also require insects for protein – especially when they’re raising babies. You can provide them with a sugar water feeder, but a better strategy is to plant the appropriate native bushes (ones with tubular, brightly-colored flowers) and keep a diverse yard without pesticide use to let insects thrive.
Do not place a feeder close to the nesting structure, as continued aggression with other hummingbirds will discourage the female from choosing that site.
Hummingbirds rely on spider silk and plant down to construct their nests and use bark and lichen to camouflage the outside. You can’t provide these materials, but you can create backyard conditions in which invertebrates like spiders will thrive and plant species like cottonwoods to provide soft down.
Do not provide human or pet hair (it’s too strong and can tangle birds), dryer lint (has chemicals and disintegrates), or yarn, string, or other synthetic fibers (can also tangle birds and often has chemical additives).
Hummingbirds get most of the water they need from their food. However, they will drink from dripping leaves and bathe in wet moss, which you can provide with a mister. They will also use shallow pools of water with gentle fountains to bathe and sometimes drink.
Answer: No. The caveat is that some species will use the same nest site, but most nests are fragile and get stretched as chicks grow, so hummingbirds cannot reuse them. It’s possible that a hummingbird will resue old nesting material if a bird re-nests within the same year, but generally hummingbird nests are a one-use-only affair.
Answer: These are tiny structures, 1-1.5 inches across, and look like part of the branch. Most species add lichen or bark to camouflage their nest.
Answer: Yes. You won’t get two females nesting close together. However, territory size depends on resources, so if you have a biodiverse yard with lots of natural food sources and bushes/trees for protection, you may get more birds in a smaller area.
You’ll be a much better steward of the environment if you make your backyard attractive to hummingbirds by adding flowering plants, eliminating pesticide use, and increasing the diversity of plants. You’re unlikely to entice a hummingbird to nest simply by adding a platform, and even if you do, a diverse backyard gives them a better chance of successfully raising their young. Remember, the health and safety of the hummingbirds come first. As an added benefit, you’ll likely see other bird species and wildlife in your yard if you make it more hummingbird-friendly!
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