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The Diet Of Hummingbirds: What Do They Eat?

What do hummingbirds eat?

Hummingbirds are always hungry! At least, it seems that way when I watch them at feeders. The little feathered sprites are always feeding or trying to chase the other hummingbirds away from their food!

Hummingbirds need to eat a lot, and they love nectar, but do they eat anything else? Is sugar water really the only item on their menu?

 

Key takeaways:

  • Although small, hummingbirds have hyper-fast metabolisms; they usually eat several times their body weight in nectar per day!
  • Hummingbirds’ diets are not only nectar-based; they also eat several kinds of insects for protein.
  • Although hummingbirds get their fill from flowers, it’s important to keep the feeders up as long as they are around. Sometimes, they just need an extra boost of energy!

 

The Diet of Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are some of the most distinctive birds on the planet. In addition to being the smallest members of the avian realm, they specialize in flower nectar. They don’t just eat a little bit of nectar either but feed on it constantly.

Fortunately, the hummingbird species that live in North America have a wide variety of flowers to choose from. Even so, they won’t take nectar from any old flower. They prefer to forage at plants with tubular-shaped flowers and other blossoms adapted to hummingbird beaks.

Costa's Hummingbird feeding

Hummingbirds love tubular flowers; they are long enough, so hummingbirds pop their bills in and have a go at the nectar.

That’s no coincidence; when hummingbirds feed from plants, they also help pollinate them. In Central and South America, the shapes of hummingbird beaks are even more specialized. Some species have curved beaks for curved flowers and one, the Sword-billed Hummingbird has an extremely long bill adapted for feeding from Angel Trumpet flowers!

Related: Attracting hummingbirds with plants (tips for gardeners)

As anyone with hummingbird feeders knows, the feisty little birds also love sugar water. In the right proportions (and without red dye), it acts as a good substitute for nectar. Don’t worry, though; as much as they like sugar water, hummingbirds still drink wild nectar.

However, it’s still not the only thing hummingbirds eat. They also pick tiny bugs from spider webs and catch small insects in the air.

 

What Do Baby Hummingbirds Eat?

Baby hummingbirds are born helpless and spend most of their time waiting for food, feeding, and growing. Their mother takes care of all nesting duties, including bringing them food.

Usually, she starts feeding her babies shortly after they hatch. Sometimes, the babies have to wait for a while, even up to 11 hours, but she usually feeds them within the first few hours.

Baby hummingbirds waiting for their meal

The baby hummingbirds eat a blend of regurgitated nectar and small insects and spiders. This is their sole diet for the first two weeks of their lives, all of it regurgitated by their mother!

She feeds her babies by inserting her beak directly into their mouths. After two weeks, she changes this feeding method and, instead of regurgitating the food, the mother bird brings small insects. She gives these tiny meals to them or places the bugs near the young birds so they can pick it up with their own beaks.

 

What Should You Keep In Mind When Feeding Hummingbirds?

Feeding hummingbirds is fun and can help them, especially during migration. However, to feed the little birds safely, there are a few, very important things to keep in mind.

To keep hummingbirds out of reach of cats and other predators, place feeders in open areas far enough away from bushes where predators can hide. It’s also a good idea to hang them at least 5 feet above the ground.

Where possible, we should also put up hummingbird feeders in semi-shaded areas. That way, the sugar water doesn’t get cooked under bright sun, and is less likely to have problems with fungus.

Regarding sugar water, it’s very important to provide birds with the right proportions. Too much sugar can cause problems, and too little sugar doesn’t provide hummingbirds with enough energy.

Fortunately, making hummingbird nectar is easy and only requires one part sugar to four parts water.

You don’t need red dye either, and in fact, you should never use it. This substance can cause health issues for hummingbirds!

The last vital thing to keep in mind is to keep your feeders clean. Wash them with hot water once or twice a week. If not, fungus and bacteria can grow that harms the birds.

Hummingbirds often come to feeders, they really enjoy sugar water

 

The Feeding Habits of Hummingbirds

  • Hummingbirds catch small insects by snapping them out of the air, and picking them from spider webs and vegetation.
  • These small birds sometimes follow sapsuckers around. When a sapsucker makes new holes or “sap wells,” the hummingbird can fly in to look for insects and drink some fresh sap.
  • To quickly feed on nectar and sugar water, hummingbirds lap their tongue in and out, 15 to 20 times per second!
  • The high number of hummingbird feeders in eastern states has resulted in some western species migrating through or even wintering in Louisiana and some other places.
  • Hummingbirds are very protective of their food sources. To ensure that they have enough to eat, they are always ready and willing to chase other hummingbirds away.
  • Being capable of hovering in place and flying in every direction helps hummingbirds forage at various types of flowers.
  • Hummingbirds have such high levels of metabolism that they need to feed every ten or fifteen minutes!
  • The first hummingbird feeders for sale were made by the Audubon Novelty Company and became available in 1950.

Learn more: Fun Facts About Hummingbirds & Their Habits

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What do hummingbirds like to eat the most?

Hummingbirds like to eat nectar, sugar water, and small insects the most.

How much do hummingbirds eat per day?

Hummingbirds can eat eight times their own body weight in nectar per day!

Do hummingbirds need protein?

Yes, hummingbirds need protein. They eat small insects just about every day.

What type of flowers do hummingbirds like best?

The type of flowers that hummingbirds like best are small, tubular-shaped blossoms and red flowers such as Sage species, Honeysuckle, Bee Balm, and Cardinal Flower.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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