Does tap water hurt hummingbirds?

Hummingbirds are tiny, fascinating creatures that capture the imagination. With their jewel-colored plumage, incredible aerobatic abilities, and unique way of feeding on nectar, they are a delight to watch. Many people enjoy attracting hummingbirds to their yards by setting up feeders full of sugary liquid. But one question that often comes up is whether it’s safe to use tap water in hummingbird feeders, or if the chemicals and minerals in tap water can harm these delicate birds. This article will examine that question in depth.

Quick Answers

– In most cases, tap water is safe for hummingbirds to drink in small amounts. However, using tap water in feeders increases risks due to additives like chlorine and fluoride.

– Distilled, filtered, or bottled spring water is safer for hummingbirds than straight tap water. Avoid using mineral water, which has added minerals that can also be harmful.

– If using tap water, take precautions like letting it sit out 24 hours before putting it in feeders, so chlorine can dissipate. Avoid water treated with ammonia.

– Keep feeders extremely clean to prevent dangerous mold, bacteria, and fungal growth when using tap water. Change water frequently.

– Consider installing a small water filter to purify tap water before using it in feeders. Choose a filter that removes additives but leaves in some beneficial minerals.

– Rainwater or melted snow provides a natural, safe option for hummingbirds to drink, and can be collected and used in feeders.

Understanding Hummingbird Physiology

To answer whether tap water may be harmful to hummingbirds, it helps to first understand some key things about their unique physiology. Hummingbirds have evolved to subsist primarily on the nectar they get from flowers. This liquid diet is relatively low in nutrients but high in sugars that provide quick energy (1).

Hummingbirds have very fast metabolisms – their heart rate can reach over 1,200 beats per minute. They can flap their wings up to 70 times per second. Because of their extreme metabolic demands, hummingbirds must consume large quantities of energy-rich sugary nectar throughout the day just to survive (2).

Their feeding method of licking nectar with their forked tongues relies on capillary action to draw the liquid up (3). Hummingbirds do not actually suck or sip nectar the way humans drink liquids. This means they are not equipped to detect or avoid potentially harmful substances dissolved in water through taste preferences the way we are.

Hummingbirds also have very small, delicate bodies, with higher respiratory rates that make them more sensitive to toxins (4). They tend to drink much more water relative to their size than larger birds. Their kidneys are not as efficient at processing and excreting large volumes of water compared to their intake (5).

These physiological factors mean hummingbirds are more vulnerable to water-borne toxins and unsuitable mineral levels in the water they consume. What may be imperceptible to humans in tap water, or only cause minor stomach upset, can seriously harm hummingbirds in certain situations.

Potential Risks of Tap Water for Hummingbirds

Now that we understand some basics around hummingbird physiology, what exactly are the risks of using untreated tap water in hummingbird feeders? Here are some primary concerns:


Municipal tap water is treated with chlorine as a disinfectant to make it safe for human consumption. However, chlorine can be toxic to hummingbirds when consumed in large enough quantities (6). High concentration exposure can injure mucous membranes in the bird’s digestive tract, mouth, and eyes.


Many municipal water systems also add fluoride to tap water to help prevent tooth decay in people. But too much fluoride can also be dangerous for hummingbirds, potentially causing symptoms like weakness, excessive salivation, and bone pathology (7).

Heavy Metals

Lead, copper, zinc and other heavy metals may leach into tap water from old corroded plumbing systems. These can poison hummingbirds and build up to cause organ damage with cumulative exposure over time (8).

Mineral Imbalances

Even minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron that are normally healthy at certain levels can become toxic if their concentrations get too high. Tap water may have much more of some minerals compared to the natural nectar hummingbirds evolved to consume.

Mold and Bacteria

Tap water can promote more rapid growth of mold, bacteria, and other microorganisms in hummingbird feeders. This produces even more toxins and leads to deadly fungal and bacterial infections in hummingbirds that drink contaminated water, especially their young (9).

Water Treatment Chemicals

Some municipal tap water may be treated with ammonia, chloramine, aluminum sulfate or other chemicals instead of chlorine. These may be even more toxic to hummingbirds than chlorine at certain doses (10).

Is Tap Water Safe at All for Hummingbirds?

Given all these potential risks, should tap water be avoided completely for hummingbirds?

The answer is not quite that definitive. In most cases, small or occasional exposure to normal municipal tap water is unlikely to cause serious harm to hummingbirds.

Some key mitigating factors when it comes to tap water safety for hummingbirds:

Dilution Effects

Any toxins and heavy metals in tap water will be heavily diluted when mixed into hummingbird feeder solutions of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. This significantly reduces the concentrations.

Low Volume Consumption

Hummingbirds have such a fast metabolism, they process water very quickly and never consume huge volumes at one sitting. This limits exposure versus what a bigger animal may ingest.

Short-Term Exposure

Hummingbirds will drink from multiple flower and feeder sources. No single water source makes up the bulk of their intake for long periods. Rotating water sources limits prolonged exposure to any given water supply.

So occasional, short-term consumption of tap water is likely safe for hummingbirds. The greater risks come from:

– Using extremely high mineral content tap water.

– Allowing feeders to become moldy or bacteria-laden.

– Letting hummingbirds access only tap water for all their needs over extended time.

– Having poor sanitation or old plumbing leaching out heavy metals.

Under these worse case scenarios, tap water contamination is much more likely to accumulate and make hummingbirds sick.

Recommended Precautions When Using Tap Water

Given the potential risks, however, it is wise to take some basic precautions when using tap water in hummingbird feeders:

– Let tap water sit out uncovered for 24 hours before using so the chlorine can dissipate and evaporate out. Avoid using hot tap water straight from the faucet, as this contains higher chlorine levels.

– Never use tap water in feeders that has been treated with ammonia or chloramine. These chemicals do not easily break down.

– Change tap water in feeders frequently, at least every 2-3 days, or more often in hot weather when fungal growth happens faster.

– Use chlorine bleach to thoroughly clean feeder parts at least weekly. Rinse all parts well. This prevents dangerous microbial contamination.

– Consider adding a few drops of plain vinegar to tap water occasionally. The acidity helps prevent bacterial buildup.

– Install a small water filter pitcher to remove chlorine, fluoride, particulates, and metals from tap water before using in hummingbird feeders.

Best Water Options for Hummingbirds

If you want to minimize risks from tap water entirely for hummingbirds, what are the best types of water to use in feeders instead?

Distilled or Purified Water

Water that has been purified via distillation or de-ionization offers the closest approximation to pure H20, and is essentially free of any chemicals, minerals or contaminants. This makes it almost as safe as the natural water in flower nectar. Distilled water in particular is easy to find and affordable. The only downside is it lacks healthy minerals hummingbirds need in trace amounts, like calcium, magnesium and potassium. This can be remedied by adding a tiny pinch of sea salt or electrolyte powder periodically into distilled water.

Good Quality Spring or Bottled Water

Natural spring water or purified bottled waters like Deer Park are also excellent choices. They will contain some beneficial minerals but almost no additives or contaminants. The bottling and sealing process protects the water from microbial contamination. Just avoid heavily mineralized “mineral waters” that can cause mineral imbalances.

Filtered Tap Water

A water filter pitcher or faucet attachment filter like Brita can remove chlorine, particulates, odors, and metals from tap water. These make tap water much safer for hummingbirds. Choose a filter that removes fluoride and chemicals but leaves in a small mineral content for health. Refrigerate filtered water in a covered jug and replace filters per manufacturer instructions.

Melted Snow and Rainwater

One of the best natural sources of pure, safe drinking water for all wildlife is fresh fallen snow and rain. Collecting some in clean containers and using this to fill hummingbird feeders provides water almost identical to what they find in nature. Just avoid any initial runoff, which may collect particulates and minerals from roofs and ground surfaces.

Key Takeaways on Tap Water and Hummingbirds

To summarize the answer to whether tap water hurts hummingbirds:

– Tap water poses some health risks to hummingbirds due to chlorine, fluoride, metals, and excess minerals. But small, short-term exposure is generally safe.

– Take precautions like letting tap water sit out 24 hours before using, changing water frequently, and thoroughly cleaning feeders. Avoid ammonia-treated tap water.

– Filtered, distilled, or bottled spring water is safer than tap water for hummingbirds. Melted snow or rainwater provides the most natural drinking water.

– Keep feeders clean, use diluted nectar, and provide alternative water sources to minimize any exposure risks from tap water.

With some common-sense measures, hummingbird enthusiasts can continue providing these special birds supplemental nectar and water safely using ordinary tap water. Following these best practices helps ensure hummingbirds stay happy, healthy, and keep coming back to drink their fill!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it ok to give hummingbirds regular sugar water?

No, regular table sugar or simple syrups made from it should not be used in hummingbird feeders. Table sugar contains no nutrients and may also have additives unsuitable for hummingbirds. Use only plain white refined granulated sugar with no added ingredients. Brown sugar also should not be used, as it contains compounds toxic to hummingbirds.

What ratio of sugar to water is best for hummingbirds?

The standard recommendation is mixing 1 part plain white sugar with 4 parts water. This approximates the average concentration of natural flower nectar consumed by hummingbirds in the wild. Higher concentrations may harm hummingbird kidneys. Lower concentrations don’t provide adequate energy.

Is honey or organic sugar ok for hummingbirds?

No. Honey may grow harmful bacteria and fungi that can make hummingbirds sick. Organic, raw, or turbinado sugar also contain higher iron concentrations that research shows can be dangerous for hummingbirds over time. Plain white refined cane sugar is still the consensus safest sweetener.

How often should hummingbird feeders be cleaned?

Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned thoroughly at least once every week. This involves completely disassembling all parts and cleaning with hot water and vinegar, then rinsing. Cleaning every 5-7 days helps prevent harmful bacteria and fungus growth. Clean more frequently in hot weather.

Can hummingbirds get diseases from feeders?

Yes. Dirty feeders contaminated with trichomonosis parasites, Aspergillus mold, or Salmonella and E. coli bacteria can spread life-threatening diseases to hummingbirds that drink from them. Maintaining extremely clean feeders through weekly cleaning helps prevent transmission of these diseases.


Hummingbirds hold a special fascination for many, and providing feeders creates an opportunity to observe these energetic, colorful creatures up close. Their specialized physiology and feeding behaviors mean we have a responsibility to safeguard their health and wellbeing when they visit our feeders. Avoiding tap water risks by taking basic precautions, and offering pure drinking water alternatives like filtered or bottled spring water, ensures our backyard feeding activities don’t end up harming hummingbirds. With a little care and consideration, we can all help supplement the natural nectar these unique birds rely on and support thriving hummingbird populations.

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