What Do Hummingbirds Eat?

If you love hummingbirds, chances are that you have set up a hummingbird feeder.

These incredibly active, tiny birds thrive on a very sweet diet.

But hummingbirds don’t live on sugar alone, and providing them with the other foods they need will bring more of these beautiful visitors to your backyard.

Hummingbirds Need Massive Amounts of Sugar

Hummingbirds are constantly looking for natural sugar.

They spend most of their time resting in trees, on twigs, but when they hover to drink nectar, they flap their wings at a rate of 700 to 5,400 times a minute.

They can achieve flight speeds of up to 33 miles per hour (50 kph). All of that flying requires an enormous amount of energy.

Most of the year, hummingbirds get their energy from the sugars they drink.

Healthy humans maintain a blood glucose concentration of about 70 mg/dl (around 4 mM).

Most emergency rooms will treat diabetics for high blood sugars if they come in with a reading of 300 mg/dl (17 mM) or more.

Hummingbirds don’t let their blood glucose concentration fall below 300 mg/dl (around 17 mM), and they try to feed on nectar until their blood glucose levels reach around 740 mg/dl (around 40 mM).

Hummingbirds need sugar for ready energy.

They escape their predators by their speed, and they keep their tiny bodies warm by burning tremendous amounts of energy.

You can help hummingbirds get the sugar they need. That’s the nutrient that a hummingbird feeder provides.

If a sugar source is watery and dilute, hummingbirds will get fussy about how it tastes.

This is a natural defense mechanism that protects the bird from having to make enormous amounts of urine as its kidneys strain out the sugar.

But if a sugar source is concentrated), hummingbirds will feast until they have all the nectar or sugar water that they can hold (which is about 1 mL, or 1/30 of a fluid ounce).

The hummingbird’s “sweet spot” is a sugar water mixture made with four parts of water to one part of refined white sugar.

Hummingbirds do not benefit from brown sugar. Hummingbirds are attracted to red flowers, but natural nectar itself is clear. You do not need to add red dye.

At the 4 to 1 concentration, hummingbirds are attracted to the sweet taste of the nectar in their feeder, while bees and wasps are not. 

Scientists have confirmed that insects prefer the much sweeter nectar they can find in flowers.

Hummingbirds Also Need Protein

The critical difference in whether hummingbirds are attracted to your backyard often is their protein supply.

Hummingbirds can eat half their weight in bugs every day! Tiny insects provide hummingbirds with the protein they need.

If you spray the bugs away, hummingbirds have to move on to get balanced nutrition.

What kinds of bugs do hummingbirds eat? Obviously, they can’t capture and eat large insects.

But they do feed on ants, aphids, fruit flies, gnats, mites, spiders, and mosquitoes.

Even though a hummingbird can drink half of its weight in nectar every day, 80 percent of its diet is insects.

Insects provide protein, but they are also important in a hummingbird’s diet for another reason.

For Migration, Hummingbirds Depend on Body Fat

Finally, hummingbirds need a third macronutrient for healthy nutrition: fat.

Many hummingbirds fly all the way across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year, once flying from the continental United States to South America for the winter, and then back across the Gulf to their summer nesting grounds in the United States.

There aren’t any pit stops on the flight path across the Gulf.

Hummingbirds depend on stored body fat for reliable, slow-burning energy to help them travel nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) non-stop.

Insects are the only source of fat in a hummingbird’s diet.

It only needs to store about a gram (1/38 of an ounce) of body fat to make the trip across the Gulf, but if it cannot find enough tiny insects to gain that extra gram of fat, it will perish along the way.

You can help your hummingbirds store the body fat they need for migration by encouraging the presence of insects in your backyard.

Don’t spray for ants and aphids in the vicinity of your hummingbird feeder. Put out peeled bananas to attract fruit flies.

The hummingbirds won’t eat the bananas, but they will eat the fruit flies.

Hummingbirds Aren’t Attracted to Water Features

Hummingbird lovers often ask if they need to install a water feature or a bird bath in addition to hanging the feeder.

Hummingbirds actually get all the water they need and a lot more from the nectar they drink. 

Scientists have discovered that unlike other birds, hummingbirds eliminate large volumes of dilute urine and leave tiny, soft, watery droppings.

Frequently Asked Questions About What Hummingbirds Eat

Why aren’t hummingbirds interested in my feeder?

There are five main reasons hummingbirds won’t visit your feeder. Here are a few potential causes:

  1. You haven’t placed your feeder in a good location. Hummingbirds spend most of their time in areas with nectar-rich flowers, so if your feeder is not located near a good source of natural nectar, they may not be interested in it.
  2. You aren’t keeping the nectar in your feeder fresh. Hummingbirds are attracted to sweet, fresh nectar, so if the nectar in your feeder is old or has become moldy, or has begun to turn into alcohol, they will not be interested in it.
  3. Your feeder may not be clean. Hummingbirds are sensitive to the cleanliness of their food and water sources, and they will not visit a dirty feeder.
  4. The hummingbirds can find other, more attractive food sources nearby. Hummingbirds are extremely mobile. They will move from place to place in search of food. If there are other sources of nectar or insects nearby that are more attractive to them, they may not visit your feeder.
  5. Your feeder may be too small or too large. Hummingbirds have specific preferences when it comes to feeder size, and a feeder that is too small or too large may not be attractive to them.

Suppose you are having trouble attracting hummingbirds to your feeder.

In that case, you may want to try moving the feeder to a different location, making sure you give it a thorough cleaning every week during the summer, and making sure the nectar is fresh and sweet.

You may also want to try a different type of feeder or nectar formula to see if that attracts more hummingbirds to your backyard.

What do hummingbirds feed their babies?

Hummingbirds feed their babies a kind of “milk” that they secrete from the lining of their crop.

They feed this fluid to their chicks by regurgitating it directly into their open mouths. Hummingbird milk is rich in protein and other substances chicks need to grow fast.

Both parents may also feed their chicks small insects, such as aphids and flies, which provide additional protein and other nutrients.

During their first two or three days of life, hummingbird chicks rely almost exclusively on the milk their parents produce for their nutrition.

As they grow, they gradually begin to consume more insects and less milk.

By the time they are ready to fledge (leave the nest), hummingbird chicks are usually able to feed themselves and are no longer dependent on their parents for food.

It is important to note that hummingbirds are small, highly specialized birds, and their feeding habits are quite different from those of other bird species.

They have a high metabolism and require a steady supply of food to fuel their rapid growth and development.

If you are interested in attracting hummingbirds to your yard, it is, of course, a good idea to provide a clean, well-maintained hummingbird feeder filled with fresh nectar.

But if you want your hummingbirds to be able to raise babies, you must avoid using pesticides that would kill the insects they feed their young.

What do hummingbirds eat during the wintertime?

Most hummingbirds fly south for the winter, some of them flying all the way across the Gulf of Mexico without stopping.

Once they reach the tropics, they eat the same kinds of foods they eat in North America in the summer.

However, it is possible to feed hummingbirds year-round. (See below.)

Are there any flowers that are poisonous to hummingbirds?

There are a few common landscape plants that produce nectar that would be harmful or even deadly to hummingbirds if they drank it.

One plant that is toxic to hummingbirds is the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia).

This plant produces toxins called saponins, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea in hummingbirds, quickly followed by dehydration and starvation if ingested in large quantities.

Other plants that may be toxic to hummingbirds include oleander (Nerium oleander), foxglove (Digitalis spp.), and larkspur (Delphinium spp.).

You should not use these plants in your landscape if you have small children or pets.

However, chances are that hummingbirds would ignore them, and simply move on to healthy alternatives.

These plants won’t kill hummingbirds because the birds won’t feed on them, but they will discourage hummingbirds from visiting your yard.

Can I feed hummingbirds all year round?

If you live in an area that has frost-free winters, you can train hummingbirds to come to your feeders throughout the year.

These are feeding stations in southern California that have hosted Anna’s hummingbirds (Anna’s hummingbird is a type of hummingbird, not a hummingbird owned by someone named Anna) twelve months of a year for decades.

Since 2020, there have been Anna’s hummingbirds in mid-winter at feeding stations as far north as the state of Washington.

However, if you stop feeding them, they will probably starve in just a day or two because they won’t have other sources of food.

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