The hummingbird family Trochilidae consists of an incredible 361 species and counting. Known for their delicate form and often vivid and colourful plumage, hummingbirds include the smallest birds on the planet - the Bee hummingbird weighs just around 1.8g! Such small birds must have a specialised diet to match, so what do hummingbirds eat?
Hummingbirds primarily eat nectar, but this doesn’t tell the whole story as, like all birds, they also require protein which they gain mainly from insects. In fact, one major study into 140 species of tropical hummingbirds found that as many as 79% consumed arthropods, including spiders, flies, aphids, gnats and mosquitoes.
Hummingbird diets are more flexible than many ornithologists first perceived, and many are excellent aerial hunters. Still, nectar is indeed a massive component of their diet and provides energy to fuel the hummingbird’s extraordinarily fast metabolism - their hearts beat as fast as 1,260 beats per minute, and their wings can flap some 80 times a second!
Read on to discover more about the nuances of a hummingbird’s diet and many more interesting facts about the foraging behaviours of these beautiful and complex birds.
A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding from a yellow flower
Hummingbirds eat nectar for similar reasons that athletes consume a high-energy diet. Their metabolism is turbocharged; their hearts beat thousands of times a minute and their wings flap at an amazing 60 to 80 times a second. This is partly because of their small size and low weight - they need to generate an enormous amount of force to create lift and fly.
To sustain their fast-paced lifestyle, hummingbirds evolved a specialised high-sugar diet and to fuel the engine that keeps those wings beating, hummingbirds require an equivalent of what would be 150,000 calories for a human! Nectar, which can be some 50% sucrose, provides energy in abundance. Even then, they still need to consume double their own body weight in food each day - it’d be like drinking your own bodyweight in Coca Cola on top of your regular meals.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is how hummingbirds digest all of that sugar without adverse harm. Scientists have only recently begun to understand how they accomplish this through a combination of ultra-efficient muscles and powerful liver enzymes that can break down sugar at a pace that outranks all other vertebrates by a huge margin.
Close up of a male Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna)
We’re only recently beginning to understand what role insects play in the diets of hummingbirds. Since there are over 360 species of hummingbirds - and many are largely unresearched - it’s very hard to generalise over the role that nectar plays in their diets.
Hummingbirds are classified as omnivores. This is because, in addition to nectar, hummingbirds consume a vast array of small arthropods, including aphids, gnats, flies, spiders and mosquitoes. Spiders have been identified as a crucial part of many hummingbirds’ diets, and species such as the Ruby-throated hummingbird use spider silk to construct their webs.
One conception that has been challenged lately is how important nectar really is to hummingbirds. After all, in some regions, flowers are not always in bloom all year round and are therefore simply not available. Broad-tailed hummingbirds in Arizona, for example, have been observed feeding almost solely on insects for two weeks whilst the flowers in their habitat range weren’t in bloom.
Another major study of 140 species of tropical hummingbirds found that some 79% of them had arthropod remains in their stomachs.
Whilst nectar undoubtedly plays a role in the diets of all hummingbirds, and constitutes the primary diet of a large range of species, hummingbirds are more flexible and adept at catching arthropods than we may give them credit for.
Hummingbird on a tree branch, looking for insects to feed on
Besides nectar, hummingbirds consume a range of small arthropods, including:
Hummingbirds also consume some plant matter, including the sweet excretions of some non-flowering plants. Hummingbirds have been observed foraging amongst lichens and mosses, as well as drinking tree sap. Their diets are actually quite flexible, and not all species gorge themselves entirely on nectar - far from it.
An incredible close up capture of this Anna's Hummingbird with a captured Mosquito
Hummingbirds consume nectar from a vast range of perennial and annual flowers. Whilst some hummingbirds like the Sword-billed hummingbird have evolved high-specialised bills for accessing flowers with long corollas, many are content feeding from flowers with easily accessible nectar.
Some notable flowers that attract hummingbirds include:
A Sword-billed Hummingbird, feeding on tropical flowers in Ecuador, with it's extremely long bill
In winter, hummingbirds may not have access to their typical nectar-abundant diet as flowers aren’t in bloom. This is particularly the case in much of North America, whereas winters in much of Central and Southern America are much less harsh, and the flowers in many tropical regions bloom all year round.
To make up for lost sugar, hummingbirds hunt whatever insects they can find in winter and are often observed digging under leaves and bark in pursuit of spiders and other small arthropods.
Where hummingbirds feed on the nectar from flowers, they drink rather than eat. Some species of hummingbirds have incredibly long tongues which coil back into their skulls, even wrapping around their brains and eyes. These tongues are extended through their beaks into the flower and flick in and out at a pace of some 18 times a second.
Some species of hummingbirds have extremely specialised bills for this purpose, with two prolific examples being the Sword-billed humming - with a bill that is longer than its body - and the White-tipped sicklebill, with a curved sickle-shaped bill. Hummingbirds birds use their bills to direct their tongue into the sugary depths of flowers.
Hummingbirds have extremely long tongues
Hummingbirds often prefer to feed at both dawn and dusk. Flowers may close at night and come out again in the morning (called nyctinasty), at which time hummingbirds will likely try and feed nice and early in the day - much the same as we eat breakfast.
Hummingbirds don’t tend to feed at night, especially when the temperatures drop, as they need to roost and maintain their warmth. Feeding would mean exposing oneself to the cold.
Hummingbird feeding on a backyard feeder at dusk
Hummingbirds love sugar water, and it can really help them top up their energy in winter, especially. We recommend a mixture of 1:4 refined sugar or white cane sugar with tap water or bottled water. Boil the water and mix the sugar in thoroughly before allowing it to cool. Add the mixture to a special nectar bird feeder and clean it out and replace it daily.
Never add colouring or other additives to the sugar water.
An emerald green hummingbird visiting a specialised hummingbird feeder
Hummingbirds help pollinate flowers in a similar way to bees and other flying insects. They do this by moving from flower to flower, moving pollen from one to another. Pollen from the male part of the flower - the anther - is transferred to the female part of the flower - the stigma. This is one-way plants create seeds and, ultimately, their offspring.
The Ruby-throated hummingbird, Black-chinned hummingbird and Anna’s hummingbird all play a key role in pollinating flowers in North America. Some hummingbirds have even co-evolved with certain flowers, meaning they have a mutual or symbiotic relationship with each other. The Sword-billed hummingbird is thought to have co-evolved with a specific species of passionflower, for example.
Whilst hummingbirds may not eat the banana itself, the banana will attract small flies like fruit flies and gnats which hummingbirds can feed on.
The sugary water of watermelon can definitely attract hummingbirds who might sip or drink from the flesh. Watermelon will also attract insects for hummingbirds to eat.
There’s nothing to say that hummingbirds eat tomatoes, but tomatoes may attract insects that hummingbirds can eat.
Some hummingbirds like the minuscule Bee hummingbird aren’t an awful lot bigger than a wasp, let alone a hornet, and probably consider them adversaries rather than food!
The Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world
Hummingbirds love to eat mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are rich in protein and help provide the long-lasting energy and sustenance that tops up a diet of nectar.
Grape jelly is full of sugars, and so long as it doesn’t contain any other chemicals or additives, it’s an excellent food for attracting hummingbirds to gardens. It can also be placed in a standard nectar feeder for easy access.
Hummingbirds are more likely to drink the sugary secretions of the juice of fruits rather than eat the fruit itself, but some have been observed eating small chunks of certain fruits, including watermelon.
Since worms need to be scavenged from the earth, they’re rarely eaten by hummingbirds. Hummingbirds prefer to eat in-flight or from a safe perch rather than the forest floor - though there are some exceptions.
Hummingbirds drink nectar which is a liquid. They probably get most of their water from nectar itself, or other foods.
Hummingbirds are vulnerable to a wide range of predators. Some common predators are:
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