It seems that bird enthusiasts--more specifically those who thrill to
the antics of hummingbirds--have been fed a steady stream of half-truths
about this diminutive avian.
Oh, sure! The hummingbirds--of which there are many--probably are the
swiftest flyers on the wing (excluding swept-wing jet planes), and they
quite obviously are fond of sugar-water solutions and the nectar of many
It may also be said, with some assurance that you will not be repudiated,
that the hummer spends most of his waking hours on the wing, resting only
in short takes.
The purpose of this column is not to pooh-pooh this steady stream of
hummingbird facts (frankly, I have always tended to think them romantic,
exciting). But recently I have observed some hummer behavior that set me
Could it be, I thought, that while a good part of a hummingbird's diet
obviously is sugar (from feeders) or nectar from flowers, it is possible
that they also feed on winged insects?
Could it also be that hummingbirds rest often when they are not even
close to their nests?
My own observations of hummers attracted to the sugar-water feeder outside
the double glass doors of my den and elsewhere have left little doubt that
hummers are quite sedentary. I observed one hummer sitting still (pruning
and performing other bird chores) for eight minutes. I do not recall ever
seeing any other bird sit in one place for that long.
But how about the insects? My observations could not verify that possibility.
Thus I asked the person I consider to be one of the best, most authoritative,
bird people I know. I didn't have to go far.
Patricia (Pat) Newforth, the lady who designed my web page and serves
as its manager, has a web page of her own on birds. For years she has studied
birds in many parts of the United States.
My question on what hummingbirds eat brought an immediate response in
the form of the bird wisdom of A. C. Bent, author of the 21-volume Life
Histories of American Birds, published between 1919 and 1968 by
the U.S. Government Printing Office in cooperation with the Smithsonian
Institution National Museum.
Ms. Newforth's web page, Familiar
Birds, includes an online book of the writing of Bent and many collaborators
Here's what A.C. Bent wrote about the ruby-throated hummingbird's diet:
FOOD--The hummingbird is popularly regarded as solely a sipper of
nectar, as it buzzes from flower to flower. . . but when it comes down
to the examination of stomach contents, it is proved that a considerable
part of the bird's food consists of insects, chiefly those that come to
the flowers the hummingbird visits.
Frederic A. Lucas (1892), after examining the contents of 29 stomachs
of several species of hummingbirds, comes to the following conclusion:
"It would seem to be safe to assume that the main food of Hummingbirds
is small insects, mainly diptera and hymenoptera. Hymenoptera are usually
present, and small spiders form an important article of food, while hemiptera
and coleoptera (winged insects) are now and then found. The small size
of the insects may be inferred from the fact that one stomach contained
remains of not less than fifty individuals, probably more.
"Most of the insects found occur in or about flowers, and my own
views agree with those of Mr. Clute, that it is usually insects, and not
honey, that attract Hummingbirds to flowers . . . In view, however, of
the testimony cited at the beginning of this paper, it would seem unquestionable
that Hummingbirds do to some extent feed on the nectar of flowers and the
sap of trees . . .
"I am much inclined to believe with Dr. Shufeldt that Hummingbirds
first visited flowers for insects and that the taste for sweets has been
Hummingbirds also avail themselves of the sap flowing from holes
drilled by sapsuckers. . . . Frank Bolles (1894) speaks of the hummingbirds
as constant and numerous visitors to the sapsucker's "orchards."
Wilson (1831) charmingly notes his experience with the hummingbird
as a flycatcher thus:
"I have seen the hummingbird, for half an hour at a time, darting
at those little groups of insects that dance in the air in a fine summer
evening, retiring to an adjoining twig to rest, and renewing the attack
with a dexterity that sets all our other flycatchers at defiance."