Not everything people say about hummingbirds is true.
Over the years I've been told all kinds of crazy things about hummingbirds. Since I began feeding and photographing them, I've fielded a number of interesting questions and encountered a wealth of misinformation.
The need to ensure that I wasn't doing anything harmful led me down a path of extensive research and I can now say that I am fairly well educated on the topic. That being said, I would like to take this opportunity to address some common misconceptions about hummingbirds.
Clarifying Ten Common Misconceptions About Hummingbirds
#1. Attract more hummingbirds by coloring their food red.
It is not necessary, or even advisable, to add artificial coloring to hummingbird food. Most hummingbird feeders are red and that is enough to attract a hungry hummer. I have never used artificially colored red nectar and my yard is still full of hummingbirds. Additionally, the red dye could be detrimental to their health and the last thing we hummingbird enthusiasts want is to harm our little feathered friends.
#2. Hummingbirds only drink nectar.
While it may seem like hummingbirds only feed on nectar, this is actually not true. Like all birds, hummers also require protein in their diet. If you look closely at the photo above, you can actually see some bug guts on this lady hummingbird's beak.
Common insects on the hummingbird menu include aphids, fruit flies, gnats, ants, weevils, beetles, mites and mosquitoes. A common sight is to see hummingbirds fly into a swarm of gnats or mosquitoes and fly around in a tight pattern. Like a shark swimming into a school of sardines, hummingbirds are fierce predators and are chowing down on those tiny insects.
#3. A hummingbird's beak is a tube through which they drink nectar.
I've heard this one many times and it is understandable. While observing a hummingbird feeding, it does in fact look like they are sucking up nectar through their beak as if it were a straw. But looks can be deceiving.
Like all birds, a hummingbird has a beak that can be opened and closed. Additionally, hummingbirds have no ability to suck. What they do have is a very long and intricately designed tongue. A hummingbird feeds by flicking it's tongue into the nectar up to 18 times per second.
A hummingbird's tongue is split and the outer edges curve inward. When the tongue hits the nectar, it springs into a curled position and as the tongue is retracted it forms a scoop that effectively traps the nectar and pulls the sugary goodness into the bird's mouth.
#4. Hummingbirds don't have feet
It's true that hummingbirds represent the evolutionary pinnacle of flight in birds. They have the ability to not only fly forward but also backwards, sideways, and even upside down. Hummers are one of only a few species of bird that are capable of hovering.
These pint-sized masters of aerial acrobatics still have feet, albeit very tiny feet. Hummingbirds have disproportionately short legs with no knees and the most ridiculously tiny four-toed feet. Due to the lack of knees joints, hummingbirds are not able to walk. They use their feet to perch and to shuffle from side to side but that's about it.
#5. Hummingbirds and bees/wasps get along.
I've read this one online more than I've heard it from actual people but, in any case, it isn't true. Bees and wasps are unwelcome guests on a hummingbird feeder. At my house, the bees aren't a problem but the yellow Apache Wasps really make a nuisance of themselves.
In the late spring and early summer the wasps are all over the feeders and, as fiercely territorial and aggressive as hummingbirds are, they will back down from an angry wasp. Unfortunately, there isn't much that can be done about this. A couple possible solutions is to mix the hummingbird food a little less sweet, maybe in a 5 to 1 ratio instead of 4 to 1. Another thing you could try would be to hang yellow decoy feeders to lure the wasps away.
I'm not sure why, but around mid-July the wasp problem usually resolves itself with a sudden and drastic decrease in the number of wasps. It could be because, at a certain stage in their life cycle, the wasps start to prioritize protein over carbs and they go in search of different food sources.
#6. Commercially purchased hummingbird food is better than homemade nectar.
I'm sure the companies that manufacture and sell commercial hummingbird nectar want you to believe that their product is fortified with vitamins and minerals and part of this complete hummingbird breakfast but, what it really is, is more expensive - way more expensive.
Remembering that the nectar we put out for hummingbirds is supplemental to their main diet, hummers receive the nutrition they need from everything they eat - not just the nectar we put out for them. Another thing to keep in mind is that commercially made hummingbird food often contains unnecessary and potentially harmful additives like artificial color and flavorings.
But back to the issue of price. Looking on Amazon, it seems the average price for a 64 ounce jug of hummingbird nectar is between $14 and $16. I maintain three 16 ounce feeders that need refilling every other day so I would burn through that 64 ounce jug very fast. By comparison, a ten pound bag of white granulated sugar is about $5 or $6 and I go through about three of them in a season.
#7. Adding honey or brown sugar to hummingbird food makes it healthier for them.
I can only assume that the origins of this myth lie in the human health food industry's attempt at promoting some sugars, such as brown sugar or that super lumpy raw sugar as "good sugar" or "healthy sugar". To clarify a couple things, humans and hummingbirds have vastly different metabolic needs. With regard to humans, when it comes to added sweeteners, there is no "healthy sugar". Be it white, brown, pink, purple or honey, all added sweeteners carry a heavy glycemic load and can adversely affect the human metabolism.
With regard to hummingbirds, they need sugar and lots of it! The heart of a hummingbird can beat up to 1260 bpm and they can burn 6,600 to 12,000 calories a day! With a metabolic rate this fast, hummingbirds need to replenish their energy supplies at least every ten minutes.
When we put out food for hummingbirds, it is critically important that this food closely resembles the nectar that they would find naturally in flowers. This homemade nectar should be comprised of 1 part plain white granulated sugar to 4 parts water, that's it - nothing else. For more information about feeding hummingbirds, click here.
Now, this is very important. Do not use raw sugar, brown sugar, agave syrup or any artificial sweeteners as all of these can cause serious health problems. Most of all, DO NOT use honey as it can be fatal to hummingbirds. If you don't believe me, it's right here on the Audubon Society's website.
#8. Leave the food out until the feeder is empty.
Have you ever noticed a hummingbird feeder looking a little funky? A dirty hummingbird feeder can pose serious health risks so it is very important that the feeders always be kept clean and filled with fresh food.
We all know that sugar ferments, right? What happens when you have a container of sugar water sitting out on a hot sunny day? The hummingbirds come along and poke their beaks and tongues into the mix thus leaving behind bacteria. That warm, sugary environment is a paradise for bacteria growth and it only takes a couple days for a hummingbird feeder to become a disgusting petri dish.
In the summer, hummingbird feeders need to be cleaned and refilled at least every other day, sometimes every day. To avoid wasting lots of food, never put out more than the birds can finish in two days. This might mean only filling the feeders a fraction of the way up, but that's ok, the most important thing is to keep the food supply fresh.
#9. Feeding hummingbirds interferes with their migration.
This is another one that I hear a lot but it isn't true. A hummingbird's migration is triggered by the duration of day light, temperature, and availability of resources. The sugar water that we put out for them is supplemental but is not their main food source. When the days get short, the nights get cold, the flowers die and the insect population plummets - that's what tells them when it's time to go.
I live central New Mexico which, for gardening purposes, would be hardiness zone 7. That means it freezes here and hummingbirds cannot survive the winter in this area - which is why they migrate to warmer climates in the late fall.
Remembering that hummingbirds will be coming from more northern locations and migrating past my house, I maintain one feeder until at least mid-October or until I see no hummingbirds for several days. Hummingbirds usually return to central New Mexico around the middle of April.
There are some parts of the country where hummingbirds live year round and they do not migrate. This would have to be areas where it rarely, if ever, freezes. If you live in one of these areas, I guess you would leave your feeders up all the time!
#10. Hummingbirds are not intelligent because they have small brains.
It's true, hummingbirds have tiny brains but, to be fair, they also have tiny bodies. The question is, do these tiny birds have intelligence or do they survive strictly on instinct?
You may be surprised to learn that a hummingbird's brain comprises 4.2 % of their body weight. Proportionately speaking, hummingbirds have the biggest brains of any bird. Even with such big brains, I think it is fair to say that hummingbirds are probably not as intelligent as members of the corvidae family (ravens, crows, jays, etc.) but there's a lot going on in that little brain!
Aside from powering a complex flight system, a hummingbird's brain has an incredible memory. They are capable of remembering the exact location of flowers and calculating the time it takes for the flower to replenish itself after it's been fed on. Hummingbirds can recognize and remember people (like the person who maintains their feeders) and even though many species of hummingbird have incredibly long migratory paths, they will return to the exact same places year after year.
In addition to their impressive memories, hummingbirds have a few other super powers too!
Hummingbirds have excellent eyesight and have better color vision than humans. Hummingbirds can see all the colors we see but they can also detect light in the ultraviolet spectrum which means they can see colors that we don't see at all. Hummingbirds also have an excellent ability to detect movement. Always on the lookout for predators, hummingbirds will flee at the slightest movement. Ask any photographer about their "standing like a statue" skills while trying to photograph these zippy little birds. Hummingbirds are also gifted with a third set of eyelids.
Hummingbirds can hear and sing notes that are beyond the auditory range of most birds. Some hummingbirds can hit notes that are technically "ultrasonic", meaning beyond the range of most other avian (and human) hearing and into a range that only dogs and cats can hear. They can also hear a camera lens focusing and will often take that as their cue to fly away.
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I am DeAnna Vincent, fine art and portrait photographer in Los Lunas, New Mexico. These are the photos from my everyday adventures.