“What do hummingbirds eat?” is a question often asked of hummer enthusiasts. It’s a simple question, and you’d think the answer would be simple too. All backyard birders know that hummingbirds drink sugar water, but what else do hummingbirds eat?
Hummingbirds are an enigma. They are among the most studied families of birds, yet every time we think we know all there is to know about their habits, they do something that flies in the face of that knowledge.
What they eat is a case in point. 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.
Hummingbirds eat small insects, larvae, insect eggs, and spiders to add proteins and minerals birds cannot derive from nectar, and these are crucial nutritional components, especially for rapidly growing hatchlings.
They may pick these insects off leaves and trees (a process called "gleaning"). They're also skilled enough fliers to catch fruit flies and other small bugs in midair (which is called "hawking.")
It is known, however, that most hummingbirds also drink tree sap. Tree sap, it turns out, is an ideal alternative to nectar. 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.
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, tend to be high in calcium and may also contain sodium, but not much is needed to fulfill a hummingbird’s dietary needs.
Because the majority of birds noted were female—at least in those instances where the sex of the hummer was mentioned—it has been proposed that the reason for this activity is to replace the calcium and other minerals lost during egg production.
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.
Insects, Tree Saps, Ashes and Sand and Fruit Juice are a far cry from the nectar and bugs that were once believed to be the hummers’ only sources of nutrition. There are undoubtedly even more items out there that the birds feed on—things that will once again change our idea of what hummingbirds eat.