Hummingbirds find feeders by sight.
Their keen vision helps them find enormous amounts of sugar every day just to survive.
But they have a better vision for green than for red, and many other things you have probably heard about hummingbird vision aren’t true.
What’s truly fascinating is how they remember where the feeder is so that they can come back to it again.
In this article, we cover some amazing things about hummingbird and how they find food and feeders.
Why Hummingbirds Have to Be Highly Skilled at Finding Food
Hummingbirds have enormous appetites for their tiny size.
Although a hummingbird spends most of its day resting on its perch rather than flying from flower to flower, the time it spends in flight requires a lot of energy.
Hummingbirds flutter their wings 5000 times a minute. Their hearts beat as fast as 1260 beats per minute.
In the two or three hours a day when they are flying, they can cover as much as 23 miles (38 km). During migration, they can fly over 600 miles (970 km) over open water without stopping.
A hummingbird weighs around 15 hundredths of an ounce (around 5 grams). To support its tiny body, it burns 3 to 7 calories of energy from the sugar-rich nectar it drinks.
If humans had equally fast metabolic rates, a 150-pound (70 kg) human would need to consume up to 112,000 calories a day.
And wouldn’t gain weight.
Hummingbirds need to get about one-and-one-half times their weight in sugar every day.
And because flower nectar is only about 20% sugar, that means they need to drink seven-and-one-half times their weight in nectar just to be able to fly around.
Hummingbirds need protein and fat, from insects, too
The amazingly fast metabolism of a hummingbird means that it has to find food sources and remember where they are.
A hummingbird can remember up to 500,000 locations where it can find nectar.
A hummingbird can remember whether the nectar in a particular flower was watery or sweet.
It can remember how much nectar the flower held the last time it visited it and use that to predict when it will be fullest for a future visit.
It can remember where flowers were budding but not open the last time it flew by a plant and the order in which it visited flowers on an earlier day.
All of this brain power in the tiny bird requires a lot of energy. Without a dependable supply of sugar, hummingbirds become sluggish and shut down to cope with starvation.
How Hummingbirds Find Food?
Like most birds that spend a lot of their day perching, hummingbirds have excellent color vision.
These birds have cones in their eyes that are very good at detecting yellow, green, and ultraviolet light.
They can see red, but it is not particularly prominent to them.
The reason that hummingbirds feed on so many red flowers is that bees can’t see them, so there is more nectar left for the hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds have a panoramic 340° field of vision. They can see all but a tiny area directly behind their heads.
Unlike humans, who focus on objects directly in front of them and have binocular vision, hummingbirds focus on objects to their sides.
This gives them a way to stay on the lookout for predators that might swoop down and capture them. It helps them see a cat crouching to one side of the hummingbird feeder.
Hummingbirds see well enough directly in front of them that they can flutter in place of a flower, but they have better vision to their sides. Even so, hummingbirds are nearsighted. They have 20/100 vision, compared to 20/4 in an eagle, 20/9 in a hawk, or 20/10 in a human with exceptionally keen eyesight.
Summing up, hummingbirds:
- Aren’t particularly attracted to red. They are better at seeing leaves than flowers.
- Can see all around them, but mostly see big objects coming in fast, like hawks and owls.
- Are just as happy with white or blue or yellow or green flowers as red flowers.
A hummingbird sees changes in its world that happen as quickly as in 1/60 of a second (15 milliseconds), and can react just as quickly. That 1/60 of a second is all the time it needs to drink its fill from a flower.
So if a hummingbird spends a full second, or even two, at your hummingbird feeder, it is getting the equivalent of dozens over even 100 trips to flowers.
Once a hummingbird has found such an abundant food source, it will remember how to come back.
But the hummingbird’s highly developed brain gives it an advantage in navigation over other flying creatures.
Once they have a flight path from point A to point B, they try to follow it each and every time.
Hummingbirds don’t follow a flight path. They navigate from point A to point B, say, from their nest to your feeder, on a path that takes them to every flower along the way.
Having flowers around your feeder helps hummingbirds find it.
If hummingbirds thought in words they might say to themselves “First I go to this flower, then I go to the next flower, then I go the flower over there, and then it’s just few hundred flutters of my wings to get to that really big flower (your hummingbird feeder), that has all the sugar in it.”
Hummingbirds remember flowers in a kind of mental list, and they go down that mental list to find your feeder.
If your feeder is in the middle of a grassy yard all by itself, they may find it by accident. They won’t be able to fly back to it.
If your feeder is next to many other flowering plants (that don’t have to be red), hummingbirds are more likely to discover it.
They will have more ways to remember the way back.
What Science Says About Hummingbird Feeders
Scientific discoveries about hummingbirds call a lot of conventional wisdom about hummingbird feeders into question.
It’s easier to attract hummingbirds than the companies that make red hummingbird feeders and red dye nectar may tell you.
Hummingbird flowers don’t have to be red
The conventional wisdom about hummingbird flowers is that they need to be red, have a tubular shape and deep necks, no scent, and make dilute nectar.
But the truth is, it’s just easier for humans to notice hummingbirds when they are feeding red flowers with long necks.
The red flowers appeal to hummingbird watchers, not to hummingbirds.
The most important scientific discovery about how hummingbirds feed has been that hummingbirds don’t need red flowers with deep wells of nectar to thrive.
When the only flowers in hummingbird habitat are white, the little birds won’t fly miles away to try to find a meal inside a red one.
They will make do with the nectar they can find where they can find it.
It’s important to remember that the attraction of a red flower isn’t its color. Hummingbirds don’t see red very well.
They see green best of all the colors. But since bees can’t see red flowers at all, hummingbirds that happen to fly to them will find them to have more nectar.
Hummingbird feeders don’t have to be red
Red colors don’t draw hummingbirds to feeders. In fact, nothing in particular draws hummingbirds to feeders.
Hummingbirds feed at one flower, and the next flower, and then they will see what it is inside this bizarre device that some human has hung in their flightpath.
That first sip of nectar from a hummingbird feeder isn’t because the feeder is red. It’s because the feeder got in the way of the hummingbird’s usual path through a flower patch.
Once the hummingbird takes a sip from the feeder, then it remembers the feeder forever.
Since bees don’t see red, and bees compete with hummingbirds for nectar, wouldn’t hanging a red hummingbird feeder keep the bees away?
You would think so, but bees will be able to find a hummingbird feeder that you hang in bright sunlight even if it is painted red.
That’s because nearly any hummingbird feeder will also reflect sunlight, and sunlight includes the UV rays that bees can see.
If you want to keep bees away from your hummingbird feeder, hang it in dappled shade.
Hummingbird feeders do need to be near real flowers
Hummingbirds are capable of doing some kind of equivalent of complex math that tells them whether the energy they spend flying to a flower is greater or smaller than the energy they get from the flower.
They can also take in account the time since their last visit to the plant and the rate at which the flowers are refilling with nectar.
If your hummingbird feeder is always full, hummingbirds will quickly realize that they can fill up at the feeder and won’t be hungrier than if they stayed on their perch.
If you let your hummingbird feeder go dry, disappointed hummingbirds won’t come back (because it is risky for them to spend calories on a fruitless search for food) unless there are other attractions nearby.
Those other attractions can be any kind of nectar-producing flower, a water feature, shelter from predators, or a second feeder.
If you want hummingbirds to stay in your yard, make sure it is energy-sufficient for them.
Use flowers to point the way to feeders, and to act as a back-up source of quick energy if something happens to your feeder, or you forget to refilit.
Hummingbird feeders need to be in a mixture of sun and shade
The best backyard hummingbird habitat provides a mix of sun and shade.
Sun is necessary for plant growth. The flowers on which hummingbirds will feed need sun to grow and bloom.
Sunlight stimulates the release of essential oils by flowering plants. Hummingbirds are attracted by the scent.
Sunlight makes water and glass glisten. Passing hummingbirds will notice glistening water and feeder and stop to investigate.
A sparkling water feature or a clear glass hummingbird feeder may be the first thing migrating hummingbirds notice when they fly over your yard.
But shade is also necessary for attracting hummingbirds.
The tiny insects that hummingbirds eat for protein, such as midges, are more active in the shade.
Shade also encourages the growth of aphids on the undersides of leaves and the movement of caterpillars into leafy trees.
These insects provide hummingbirds with another needed meal.
Shade keeps sugar water feeders from overheating. Homemade sugar water and commercial nectar solutions begin to go bad after just two days in direct sunlight.
Sour sugar water gives hummingbirds an unpleasant taste experience they won’t forget. Shade helps your feeder stay attractive.
Shade plants give visiting hummingbirds protection from overhead predators. They also prevent fights over territory among hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds are intensely territorial. They will drive other hummingbirds away from the plants on which they feed.
But dense shade trees may give other visiting hummingbirds a way to approach a second feeder unnoticed by a jealous bird.
Considerations for California and West Coast hummingbirds
Scientists have also done extensive studies of feeders used to attract Anna’s hummingbirds and Allen’s hummingbirds, which are common in coastal California north to Alaska in the summer and Baja California in the winter.
Anna’s hummingbirds stay in coastal sections of California and Oregon all winter.
Feeders help these birds stay in healthier conditions, especially in the winter. They increase the number of fledglings that survive to produce the next generation.
But they also increase hummingbird populations where there are large feral cat populations and put large numbers of birds at risk for contagious disease.
If you are putting out feeders for Anna’s or Allen’s hummingbirds, keep in mind that:
- If you live in the warmer areas of Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas, you may adopt Anna’s or Allen’s hummingbirds that fly in from California after wildfires. They are attracted to feeders that are kept full in winter. Once they make a home in your backyard, they are likely to stay.
- These hummingbirds may visit a feeder at any time or night or day. In cold weather, when hummingbirds need more energy, they make more visits to the feeder at night. They need safe corridors to approach the feeder at night, so they won’t be caught by cats or owls.
- These hummingbirds are most likely to visit a feeder at dawn or dusk. These are the best times to catch a glimpse of them feeding. Hummingbirds visiting locations where there have been feeders for many years may spend as long as 10 seconds at the feeder. That’s over 500 times as much time as they may spend at some flowers.
- A single feeder can get as many as 10,000 hummingbird visits every year. That’s 10,000 opportunities to enjoy these beautiful, intelligent, fascinating birds.
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