Hummingbirds are voracious eaters, often feeding a dozen or more times an hour as they visit flowers and nectar feeders for sweet sips. But what else can you feed hummingbirds to help them have a nutritious, balanced diet?
Hummingbirds are both nectivorous and insectivorous – both nectar and insects make up a large and important part of their diets. Nectar has a high sucrose content that provides essential energy for these birds, as well as the water they need to drink.
Insects, on the other hand, are their primary source of protein and other nutrients critical for healthy growth, particularly for hatchlings and young birds that are still growing. A varied diet ensures the birds can maintain healthy muscles and feathers and have enough energy to forage, raise young, migrate and do other tasks that ensure their survival. In addition to these two main food sources, however, hummingbirds may also sample other foods, such as fruit, sap or grit, all of which add more nutrition to their diets and all of which you can offer in your backyard.
Foods to Feed Hummingbirds
Offering hummingbirds a varied diet in your backyard can not only keep these birds healthier, but it will attract a wider range of hummingbird species to visit your feeders. Different birds have different feeding preferences, and the more foods you offer and the more ways you offer it, the more birds you will attract.
Because hummingbirds eat many things, there are several different foods you can offer at your backyard feeders to tempt these small birds to stay for a snack.
- Nectar: Hummingbird nectar is the most popular food to offer hummingbirds, and even if this is all you offer in your backyard, you can be successful feeding hummingbirds. A 4:1 water-to-sugar ratio is the best homemade nectar solution because it most closely mimics natural sucrose found in flowers that hummingbirds prefer and is easiest for the birds to digest efficiently. Offering a 3:1 ratio can also be successful, especially during hummingbird migration or cold weather when the extra energy will be most welcome. In addition to hummingbird feeders, choose hummingbird flowers that can be a natural nectar source for feeding hummingbirds.
- Insects: Hummingbirds will not accept mealworms from backyard feeders, but encouraging natural insects is a great way to offer this important food source to hummingbirds. Minimize insecticide or pesticide use, and allow grass to grow slightly longer to encourage more insects for hummingbirds to feed on. Leaving large spider webs intact can also provide a food source for hummingbirds as they glean insects caught in the web, but take care that the birds do not become tangled themselves. If a hummingbird gets caught, an aggressive spider may eat the bird!
- Fruit: A piece of fruit staked on a tree or near a hummingbird feeder might encourage a hummingbird to take a sip of sweet juice. More importantly, however, the fruit will attract fruit flies and other gnats that are an important source of insects for the birds. For an even more effective feeder, choose fruit with red or pink flesh, such as blood oranges, watermelons or ruby-red grapefruits. The red color is more attractive to hummingbirds and they will notice the unusual food source more quickly.
- Sap: When other food sources are scarce, hummingbirds will sip from the wells that woodpeckers drill to reach tree sap. While they are not muscivorous by nature, taking steps to attract woodpeckers to your backyard can encourage this supplementary food source to be available to hummingbirds in need.
- Grit: Hummingbirds require a very small amount of grit in their diet to help them digest their food, especially insects, and they also absorb minute amounts of other critical minerals from the grit. Ashes, fine sand or fine gravel are all good potential sources of grit, and the birds will choose the bits that work best for their needs. Offering grit in a small dish or pile near feeding areas is the best way to provide this material, and other birds will also take advantage of its availability.
What Not to Feed Hummingbirds
While it can be tempting to offer hummingbirds a wide variety of different foods, certain items should never be made available to these tiny birds because they can be dangerous, even deadly. Avoid offering these foods to your backyard hummers:
- Sweetened drinks or juices
- Corn syrup
- Sugar substitutes
- Spoiled nectar
These materials should never be used to make hummingbird nectar: they often contain a wide range of processed chemicals and dyes that can be detrimental to the birds. Furthermore, decay in these items can lead to fungus and mildew that can be harmful, even fatal, to hummingbirds.
More Hummingbird Feeding Tips
Even if you offer a range of good foods for hummingbirds, it can take some time for the birds to find your feeders and visit them regularly. To invite more hummingbirds to your backyard buffet:
- Use several different feeders and feeder styles to accommodate more birds without territorial challenges and to let the birds choose how they are most comfortable feeding.
- Place hummingbird feeding stations slightly apart from other bird feeding stations so the small hummingbirds are not bothered or distressed by other feeding birds.
- Take steps to discourage feral cats and other hummingbird predators to make your feeding area as safe and secure as possible.
- Use colors in your yard to catch hummingbirds' attention and take advantage of their natural curiosity to lead them to your hummer-friendly backyard.
With patience and perseverance, offering different hummingbird foods will be a rewarding experience as you watch these tiny birds sample the different dishes at your hummingbird buffet.