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The surprising things that hummingbirds eat

Ruby throated hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Despite an overnight frost, spring marches on, at least in its ocean-cooled Cape Cod form. Cultivated cherries and magnolias have burst in yards all over, though most native plants remain quiet. The exception is willows and Red Maples, which have been the primary food for early bees over the last month, their flowers high enough that few notice the activity, except the birds. Never pass a sunlit red maple or willow in April, as they may harbor several songbirds hawking insects, including April migration stalwarts like Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers. But what about that eagerly anticipated, florally oriented bird of April the Ruby-throated Hummingbird – what do they eat this early? Stay tuned, as I spend the next several minutes on an extended version of “I’m not totally sure”…

After a single report mid-month, the first flurry of hummingbird reports came in over the last few days, with at least 6 people reporting them in yards from Wellfleet to Falmouth. Others have been reported as far as Central Maine and Nova Scotia, so it’s high time to get the feeder out. You might look around in natural areas and wonder what hummingbirds are eating on a cold April day, not to mention 500 years ago when plastic hummingbird feeders were a little sparse – I know I do. The answer, for the most part, is insects. Maybe you thought they were on some all-carb celebrity fad diet, but like most critters, they need protein and fat, too.

Studies have estimated insects are upwards of 60% of the diet of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. They apparently glean small caterpillars, aphids, and insect eggs from trees. And if you watch them closely away from feeders, you might see them hawking mosquitoes, gnats, and fruit flies from the air, or even pulling spiders out of webs. Hummingbirds do spiders pretty dirty – they eat some small spiders right out of the web, steal insects out of other webs, and steal the entire webs of still other spiders to make their amazing, flexible little nests. Some spiders get their revenge – many a hummingbird has been ensnared in the webs of larger spiders, especially down south, where the truly huge orb weavers they call banana spiders make webs that could catch a small helicopter.

Hummingbirds also follow woodpeckers around in early spring to get sap from their holes. A couple of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been working the trees here at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary the last few weeks, unwittingly opening the sap spigot for hungry hummingbirds just back from Honduras or Costa Rica, keeping them straight until some more flowers come online next month. Some tropical hummingbirds have even been observed drinking a sweet honeydew produced by scale insects and ahpids, but we’re not sure if that happens around here.

One spring in coastal Oregon, back when I was the only human inhabitant of a thickly forested coastal watershed where I was studying birds, I had a female Rufous Hummingbird that would come to my fire pit and eat the ash – apparently ash is high in calcium and other minerals important to a nesting bird. It was very cold and rainy there and I wasn’t seeing a lot of flowers as I hiked around – it was amazing to see how resourceful these little birds could be.

So there you have it – 500 words of mostly speculation with a little research behind it, on what these April hummingbirds are eating. As you synthesize all these factoids, it may be tempting to combine all of these things into a slurry of sugar, water, mashed fruit flies, squashed spiders, maple syrup, and wood ash – let’s call it a hummingbird spring smoothie – but I must insist you stick with the classic, safe hummingbird nectar mix – 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, boiled for a minute, in a feeder you always keep clean. Finally, and this is your last reminder, yes - it is time to get your feeder out.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.