What do hummingbirds eat? (It’s not just nectar!)
What do hummingbirds eat?
Wanting to know the foods that hummingbirds consume is a common question for anyone that enjoys watching these winged beauties.
I have often wondered how hummingbirds get nutrition, mainly since I have only observed them eating nectar (Food #1 below!) from the flowers in my backyard.
Today, we are going to cover the FOUR most common types of food that hummingbirds consume.
Food #1: Nectar
In case you didn’t know, the primary food source of hummingbirds is nectar, which is a sugar-rich liquid found in flowers that these birds drink up with their tongue!
Check out the video below to watch hummingbirds eating in slow motion. It’s fascinating to watch!
Hummers drink up to HALF their body weight each day in nectar!
I have often wondered why hummingbirds need to drink so much nectar?
If you look at its composition, nectar is just sugary water (~20% sucrose and 80% water). And I’m confident that NO ONE would recommend that humans drink gallons of sugar water every day for optimum health!
Well, I guess my 5-year old daughter may think that’s a good idea. 🙂
But after a bit of research, I found the reason:
Hummingbirds need nectar because of their active lifestyle!
Here are a few crazy facts to help illustrate the point.
Can flap their wings up to 70 times per second.
Have hearts that beat on average 1,200 times per minute.
Stick their tongue in and out of a feeder 13 times per second.
As you can see, hummingbirds need loads of energy to keep up their hectic pace.
And instant energy is what nectar provides!
Hummingbird food starts and ends with nectar. Every single species of hummer eats and relies on this sugary substance for survival.
How can you use nectar to attract hummingbirds?
Luckily, making sugar water that resembles natural nectar is easy! To learn more about the proven recipe that enthusiasts have used for decades, check out this article that I wrote:
Once your sugar water is made, you will need to find a nectar bird feeder to deliver the food to your birds. Make sure that the feeder you choose has red somewhere on it since hummingbirds are naturally attracted to this color. (But don’t put red dye in your homemade nectar!)
Check out these hummingbird feeders LIVE from California:
The enthusiast who provides these feeders typically has to refill them THREE times per day. As long as it’s daylight, you are almost guaranteed to see hummingbirds! Learn more about this set up HERE.
If you don’t want to commit to continually making nectar and cleaning your hummingbird feeders, then I recommend planting a hummingbird garden. This way, you can see hummingbirds all season long visiting your beautiful, native flowers. And once you plant the garden, you don’t have to do much maintenance other than the occasional pruning, mulching, and watering!
Food #2: Insects
While nectar provides energy for hummers, these winged beauties need to get protein and other necessary nutrition from another source!
Enter the insect!
Hummingbirds eat many types of small bugs to supplement their sugary diet. If you watch closely, it is a ton of fun to watch a hummingbird chase down a fly or pick small aphids directly off a plant.
Each species of hummingbird consumes different types of bugs.
Here is an insect guide to the 6 most common hummers in North America:
- They are skilled at catching insects in mid-air! Their main prey includes mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, and small bees. Ruby-throated’s are also known to pick aphids and caterpillars directly off leaves.
- They especially enjoy hunting gnats, midges, and flies in the air, while plucking aphids from leaves.
- These hummers are known to hunt small insects by “hawking.” This means they sit on a perch waiting for their victim to casually fly by then flying out to catch them in the air.
- Broad-tailed’s will eat insects wherever they can find them! That could be catching bugs in mid-air, gleaning off leaves, or even stealing them off a spider web!
- This species is common on the West coast, and they eat a wide variety of insects, but Anna’s Hummingbirds especially enjoy midges, whiteflies, and leafhoppers!
- They readily eat all sorts of insects.
How can you attract hummingbirds using insects?
Unless you spend hours observing hummingbirds in your backyard, it may be hard to see them catching or eating an insect.
But don’t worry, I have a tip that should help you attract these birds to your backyard and have fun watching them eat!
The next time you have some bananas (or any fruit!) that start getting old, instead of throwing them away, you are going to want to put them outside!
The reason is that rotting fruit attracts lots of fruit flies, which is a favorite food of most hummingbird species!
If possible, try to find a quiet spot at the back of your yard, preferably on a raised platform so you can easily watch the show!
Food #3: Arachnids
Do you ever dream you are surrounded by spiders?
(Do you remember the movie Arachnophobia from the early ’90s starring Jeff Daniels? Finding this clip brought back some memories!)
You probably never thought that hummingbirds could save the day!
Yes, that’s right. Many species of hummers eat (small) spiders in addition to insects for protein. They will pluck these arachnids right off their webs or while hiding on a plant.
While many hummingbird species will have an occasional spider treat, Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds include spiders as a large part of their diet.
How can you attract hummingbirds using spiders?
If you want to provide a buffet of fresh spiders for your local birds, then my recommendation is to fill your yard with native flowers, shrubs, and trees!
Native plants will attract the most amount of insects. And as you can imagine, where there are lots of insects, spiders will not be far behind. 🙂
Interestingly, hummingbirds use spider webs for an important purpose!
Can you guess how?
No, they don’t eat them!
Many hummer species use spider silk when they are building their nests!
I’m starting to feel bad for spiders. Not only do hummingbirds eat them, but then they steal their webs!
Food #4: Tree Sap
Believe it or not, at certain times of the year, many hummingbird species rely greatly on sugary tree sap.
As hummers are migrating north, it’s common that they arrive before many flowers have started to bloom, which creates a big problem. Hummingbirds need nectar constantly to support their high-energy lifestyle.
So what’s a hummingbird supposed to do?
Interestingly, hummingbirds will time their northward migration to follow certain species of woodpeckers. Specifically, they target sapsuckers because these woodpeckers drill large holes into trees to make them release their sap.
And as you can imagine, hummingbirds don’t have the adaptations necessary to drill holes into trees.
So they rely on sapsuckers to do the job for them. Once these woodpeckers drill a well into a tree, hummingbirds follow to drink the sugary sap!
Tree sap has a similar sugar content to flower nectar.
I want to mention that Spring migration is not the only time of year when hummers eat sap, because it also happens during Fall migration. Also, many hummingbird species are known to build their nests near sapsucker wells to drink sap all summer!
So which hummingbird species eat sap?
- They follow Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Listen to this short audio below from Birdnote to hear more about the relationship between these two birds!
- Use sap wells created by Red-naped Sapsuckers.
Calliope and Anna’s Hummingbirds are also known to drink tree sap.
Lastly, I found it interesting that one of the saps that hummingbirds prefer most is from the maple tree. Remember that maple sap is the same stuff that humans use to make maple syrup!
I guess we share some similar tastes with hummers, even though I don’t think we would both enjoy eating spiders. 🙂
I always knew that hummingbirds drank nectar, but when I first learned that they also eat lots of insects and spiders, I was a little relieved! I was worried about their diet of sugar water and wanted to make sure they got some other nutrition. 🙂
The fact that hummingbirds follow sapsuckers around hoping to drink some of the sap they drill from trees was incredibly fascinating. I have never observed this, but now I have something new to look for while out in the woods.
Did you learn something new today?
Or are there any other foods you have seen hummingbirds eat?
Thanks for reading!