Hummingbirds are fascinating birds.
These tiny balls of beauty offer endless hours of entertainment to backyard bird watchers.
It’s only natural to want to keep a hummingbird as a pet.
But is it possible to have a pet hummingbird? Let’s find out.
Hummingbirds as Pets – Is it Possible?
To get right to the point, it’s not possible to keep a hummingbird as a pet the same way you might keep a canary or a parakeet or a lovebird.
It’s technically not legal to keep a hummingbird as a pet in either the US or Canada.
Both countries have had laws against interfering with migrating wildlife for over 100 years.
The fact is, the laws aren’t enforced very often, and it’s possible to get a permit to do wildlife rehab that allows you to keep a wild bird. But a more important fact is this:
Hummingbirds can’t survive in cages or aviaries.
A hummingbird’s body is built for bursts of extreme activity. Maybe you have seen a male hummingbird dive at 60 miles per hour from 120 feet overhead to woo a mate.
Or you have seen a hummingbird do a dance, flying at high speed back and forth like a pendulum to defend its territory.
And probably you know that a hummingbird needs the nectar of 1,000 to 2,000 flowers a day for its sugary fuel, plus as many tiny insects as it can catch for fat, protein, minerals, and vitamins.
You can’t provide what a hummingbird needs in a cage. But you can still have a relationship with a hummingbird.
There are credible tales of hummingbirds that fly into homes to visit with the humans that feed them. There are many stories of a hummingbird flying up to human eye level with its mate after a feeder was filled as if to say “Thank you.”
And later in this article, we’ll tell you how to train a hummingbird to perch on your finger while it feeds, and even how to persuade a hummingbird to take nectar from the palm of your hand.
First, however, let’s consider the unique needs of hummingbirds and how you need to meet them to have a relationship with the bird.
Providing a Home for Hummingbird
There are 330 kinds of hummingbirds in the world, all of them native to North and South America. Occasionally a weather system will blow hummingbirds to Europe or Africa, but they are not native there.
Nearly all hummingbirds live in the tropics. They occupy flower banks in rainforests, where only the strongest and smartest birds survive.
In Brazil, there are hummingbirds with bills that are 3 inches long and lined with “teeth.” There is a hummingbird with a dagger at the end of its bill.
There are hummingbirds in the tropics that will get into knock-down, drag-out fights over a perch near a food source.
There have been a few recorded instances of one hummingbird stabbing another with its beak. Usually, they will lock their toes and try to throw each other off-balance until one bird flies away.
The hummingbirds you see in your backyard are hummingbirds that flew away from the competition, at least for the nesting season.
They come to North America to raise their young surrounded by relatively abundant resources.
We see hummingbirds competing here, fussing with each other. But nesting sites in the US and Canada are much friendlier to hummers than the competition in the jungle.
We don’t know if a hummingbird can breathe a sigh of relief, but finding a backyard feeder that contains the equivalent of 1,000 flowers must be an enormous attraction to a hummingbird.
And because the relatively tiny hummingbirds that fly all the way to the US and Canada are also unusually smart birds, they will form relationships with the humans that feed them.
Feeding Every Day Is a Matter or Life or Death for Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds have amazingly fast metabolisms.
A hummingbird’s pulse can run up to 1,260 beats per minute. Even when it is resting, a hummingbird breathes 250 times a minute.
Hummingbirds have a normal body temperature of 102.2° F (39° C). In flight, they take in 10 times as much oxygen per gram of body weight as an elite human athlete.
Just to keep flying for a few minutes, a hummingbird needs to keep its blood sugar level at about 750 mg/dl (42 mmol/L). In humans, anything over 120 mg/dl (about 4.6 mmol/L) is considered diabetic.
To get enough energy for ordinary flight, a hummingbird has to consume an amount of sugar roughly equivalent to 1,000 cans of Coke or Pepsi a day for a human.
But hummingbirds burn glucose so fast that they don’t develop some kind of bird diabetes.
And the ruby-throated hummingbird that is so common in the eastern United States also needs to consume enough fat from insects.
It stores body fat to be able to fly at 25 to 50 miles per hour (40 to 80 kph) for 10 to 20 hours across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year while migrating.
Is it any wonder that hummingbirds are jealous of their food sources? Or that they can remember all of them?
Hummingbirds Have Amazing Memories for Feeding Locations
A hummingbird’s brain occupies about 4% of the size of its body. Human brains take up only about 2% of their bodies.
Hummingbirds have an unusually large hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms memories. They can remember as many as 500,000 locations where they have fed — in order.
These birds don’t just remember where there are flowers with nectar. They will remember how much nectar a flower holds.
They will remember when they visited the flower last, and whether it has had time to refill itself the next time they fly by.
Scientists believe that a hummingbird’s brain acts something like a DVR. It can replay a mental movie of where it has flown before, hitting pause and skip to match its memories of flight between feeding locations as conditions change.
A hummingbird will write a part of you in its mental movie of hummingbird feeders if you give it a chance.
Getting yourself a prominent place in the hummingbird’s movie of the world requires a lot of patience. But you only get your audition after you have paid a price in sugar water.
Also read: How Long Does Hummingbird Nectar Last?
How to Build a Relationship with a Hummingbird
Here’s how to build a relationship with a backyard hummingbird step by step.
Put Up a Hummingbird Feeder
Hummingbirds are so focused on feeding that they won’t take time to pay attention to humans except those who provide them with food.
You can’t catch the tiny insects that hummingbirds eat, but you can provide them with “nectar.”
Nectar in flowers is a mixture of glucose, sucrose, and fructose sugars, and water. Nectar is mostly sucrose, the same sugar we get from sugar cane and most of us consume every day.
It’s sweeter than the other two sugars at flower or feeder temperatures. Sucrose is a chemical combination of glucose and fructose and gives hummingbirds the quick energy they need.
In a flower, the concentration of sugar ranges from 25 to 50%. That’s about one part sugar to three parts of water up to equal amounts of sugar and water.
The sugar water you put in a hummingbird feeder doesn’t have to be quite that sweet.
It’s OK to use just one part sugar dissolved in four parts of water, making a 20% sugar solution.
But you have to use white, granulated sugar, not brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, or honey.
It’s important not to give the birds the molasses used to make brown sugar or the variety of chemicals even in natural honey.
There are three things to think about when you are choosing a place to hang your hummingbird feeder.
- Your hummingbird feeder needs to be “in the hummingbird’s movie” It needs to be between two groups of flowers, in enough dappled shade. Glistering but not glaring sunlight on the feeder will catch a passing hummingbird’s attention.
- You need to place your hummingbird feeder where it is easy for you to watch the birds that feed at it.
- And you need to place your hummingbird feeder where you can sit in a comfortable chair, with armrests, to train hummingbirds to come up to you.
Some of the usual rules for hanging hummingbird feeders don’t apply when your goal is training a hummingbird to interact with you.
Your hummingbird feeder needs to be in a safe place, but it also needs to be within easy reach so you can take it down.
In the process of training hummingbirds to come to you, you will hold it and draw it back repeatedly. The feeder needs to be small enough that your arm won’t get tired holding it.
The usual advice is to make sure a hummingbird has squirrel baffles and a circular pool of water to keep out ants.
These are still a good idea, but they need to be easy to remove and replace when you take the feeder down for training sessions.
And most experts will tell you that two or more feeders are better than one because highly territorial hummingbirds will fight over them.
If you are training hummingbirds, you want just one hummingbird feeder in your yard, so the birds won’t have the option of not coming to you.
Play a Very Patient Game of “Here Bird”
The next thing you will do is to train a hummingbird to perch on your finger while it drinks from your feeder.
It won’t be possible to do this before at least one or two hummingbirds have made your feeder part of their regular feeding circuit.
If you have been seeing hummingbirds for at least a week, and they aren’t just passing through on a migration route, you can proceed to the next step.
Place a comfortable lawn chair in either full sun or partial shade, where a hummingbird can see you, about 3 feet (a meter) away from your hummingbird feeder.
Many people who have tried this technique report that it helps to wear a red cap, red blouse, or red shirt to the hummingbirds’ attention, but this is not essential.
Sit very still until you see a hummingbird approach the feeder. Calmly wave hello to it.
Hummingbirds have nearly a 340° field of vision. Even if they are looking at the feeder port, they will see you wave.
For the first encounter, that’s it. Chances are that the hummingbird will be spooked and fly away.
Move your chair about six inches closer to the feeder and sit some more. Hummingbirds won’t be able to resist a rich food source like a feeder. They will be back in a few minutes.
The next time you see a hummingbird at the feeder, sit still. Don’t wave hello. Let it take a long drink from the feeder. When it flies away, take down the feeder and hold it in your hand.
It will be only a few minutes before the hummingbird is back for a fill-up. Let it take another long drink as you hold the feeder in your hand.
And when the hummingbird comes for another fill-up, move the feeder closer to you, teasing the bird but still letting it feed,
Keep moving the feeder back and forth to make sure the hummingbird is comfortable close to you while drinking nectar from the feeder. Then offer it your finger as a perch while it feeds.
The hummingbird may ignore your finger once or twice, but it will eventually figure out that it is more comfortable to rest on your finger while it is at the feeder.
Eventually, it may let you approach it while it drinks from the feeder while it is hanging up. It may let you walk up to the feeder and give it a perch.
It may even bring its mate, fly up to your eye level, and show you its brightly colored throat feathers to say hello.
The secret to success in taming hummingbirds is to know your limits. You have to be part of its mental movie that keeps it alive.
Hummingbirds can’t afford to take a detour to your feeder unless you keep it full at all times.
For a hummingbird, finding an empty feeder is like feeling famished and driving down to the grocery store, only to find it closed.
It’s not really possible to turn hummingbirds into pets.
But if you provide food for a hummingbird every day, you can have a relationship with it that lasts the whole summer.
If you live where there are nonmigrating hummingbirds, you can build a relationship that lasts all year round.
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