All backyard birders know that hummingbirds drink sugar water, but what else do hummingbirds eat? Understanding what food sources hummingbirds like best can help you plan an attractive backyard buffet that will tempt these tiny birds as well as meet all their nutritional needs.
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Nectar, either from suitable flowers or sugar water solutions, is the most abundant and popular source of hummingbird food. The large amount of sucrose in nectar gives hummingbirds the necessary energy for their high metabolism, swift flight, and energetic lives.
Because nectar is liquid, it also supplies the birds’ necessary water, and hummingbirds do not typically drink from other water sources. Nectar does not, however, meet hummingbirds' needs for protein, amino acids, and different vitamins and minerals, and they must eat other things to have a balanced and healthy diet.
To make hummingbird nectar, follow a precise recipe. Mix 1 cup sugar (refined white sugar) with 4 cups water until the sugar dissolves. Do not add any dye or other additives into the mixture. Any extra sugar water can be put in your refrigerator for use in the feeder in the next few days.
In addition to nectar, hummingbirds eat a variety of other items to get adequate nutrition.
Small insects, larvae, insect eggs, and spiders are critical food sources for hummingbirds. Insects provide the fat, protein, and salts the birds cannot derive from nectar, and these are crucial nutritional components, especially for rapidly growing hatchlings.
Hummingbirds may hunt insects in several ways, including gleaning or picking them from bark, flowers, or leaves; hawking them in midair; or plucking them from spider webs or sticky sap.
To get the required amount of protein for a healthy diet, an adult hummingbird must eat several dozen insects each day. They will eat many more, however, if they need to regurgitate this nutritious food to hungry hatchlings, or if they are in the midst of a long migration.
When nectar is scarce, hummingbirds will sip tree sap from wells drilled by woodpeckers. While the tree sap is not as sweet as floral nectar, it still provides an adequate source of sucrose for a hummingbird’s energy needs. Sap that has dripped down and hardened on the tree trunk cannot be drunk, but the birds may pick insects from the sticky residue.
Hummingbirds do not directly consume pollen, but a great deal of pollen can be stuck to their tongues and bills when they sip nectar from flowers. Some of that pollen is ingested, and it can be a minor source of protein even though it wasn't directly eaten. However, less than 10 percent of the ingested pollen is actually digested. This shows that, while viable, this is not a common food source for hummingbirds.
Ashes and Sand
Some hummingbirds have been observed eating ashes and sand in small quantities. These foods can be a good source of vital minerals and salts, but not much is needed to fulfill a hummingbird’s dietary needs.
It is also possible that the birds were picking insects from the material, rather than actually eating the ashes or sand. More close observation and study are needed to determine how critical this food source may be for hummingbirds.
Certain ripe or juicy fruits may attract hummingbirds. Hummingbirds have been known to discreetly sip the juices from berries, apples, pears, and oranges if they are peeled, cut open, or if the flesh is otherwise exposed.
Attracting Hummingbirds With Food
Understanding what hummingbirds eat will help you plan a backyard feeding station to sate hungry hummers. To attract hummingbirds with the right types of food, consider the following:
- Plant native flowers and flowering shrubs and trees that produce nectar-rich blooms, including honeysuckle and coral bells. Red, tubular flowers will attract the most birds, and choosing hummingbird flowers that bloom throughout the season will ensure an adequate nectar supply for months. Consider removing flowers hummingbirds don't like and replacing them with better nectar-producing blooms instead.
- Avoid spraying for insects or spiders in the garden or around your home, and do not knock down webs or otherwise disrupt the insects. Rely on hummingbirds and other insect-eating birds to provide natural pest control instead.
- Use hummingbird feeders filled with a proper sugar solution to simulate natural nectar. Red feeders will attract hummingbirds, and a hummingbird nectar recipe of four parts water to one part sugar is closest to the sucrose levels of the most popular flowers. Do not use honey, molasses, fruit juice, or artificial sweeteners to make hummingbird nectar, as none of them are adequate and some could be dangerous to the birds.
- Provide nearby perches for hummingbirds to defend their favorite feeding areas. Many hummingbirds are extremely territorial, and they will use a perch as a lookout point for intruders. If they feel comfortable in the area, they will stay nearby and feed more easily.
Hummingbirds may be popular summer visitors at nectar feeders, but they eat many other things. Just as a good backyard feeding station will provide different types of birdseed and other suitable foods, providing different hummingbird foods ensures that these beautiful birds never leave your yard hungry.
Suarez, Raul K, and Kenneth C Welch. Sugar Metabolism in Hummingbirds and Nectar Bats. Nutrients, vol. 9, no. 7, pp. 743, 2017. doi:10.3390/nu9070743
Nutrition: Nectar is sweet but insufficient. Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
Brice, A.T. et al. Pollen Digestibility by Hummingbirds and Psittacines'. The Condor, vol. 91, no. 3, pp. 681-688, 1989, The Cooper Ornithological Society. doi:doi.org/10.2307/1368120
Hummingbird Feeding FAQs. National Audubon Society.