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11 Myths About Hummingbirds

Updated on March 08, 2017

One of my favorite memories of living in the Southwest of the US was watching hummingbirds feed right up close at the feeder on our patio. We were transplants who knew nothing about birds, and became local bird enthusiasts who learned there is much more to hummingbirds than meets the eye.

Hummingbirds are endemic to the western hemisphere and are a delight to birdwatchers in the Americas, from Canada in the north all the way to Argentina in the south. In warm climates, they may be seen year round, while in temperate climates they usually migrate over winter. Unlike most birds that keep their distance from humans, hummingbirds are not shy and will hover around you (especially if you are wearing red), and even sip nectar from a feeder in your hands. But despite their easy familiarity with humans, hummingbirds are the subject of many myths and misconceptions. Here are some of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of hummingbirds.

1. Hummingbirds See in Black and White Plus Red

There is a misconception that red is the only color hummingbirds can see, with the rest of the world rendered in black and white. They can actually see all the colors that humans can see, but reds, oranges, and pinks, stand out to them more than other colors. Hummingbirds are attracted to bright reddish hues and that is why feeders are manufactured with red components and why store-bought nectar is dyed red. They can also see wavelengths near UV that humans cannot see.

Hummingbirds don't have much sense of smell, they rely on their keen vision. But don't worry if your garden's flowers are only pastel hues. Hummers will find nectar-rich flowers regardless of color.

2. Nectar Must Be Dyed Red

Just because the hummingbird feeder nectar you buy in the store has red food coloring in it doesn't mean you need to add it to your own brew if you make it at home. Since hummingbirds are very curious about their surroundings (particularly man-made objects and humans) they will find your feeder just fine without the red dye. Feeders usually have some red components anyway; red dye is superfluous. The red coloring in store-bought nectar is mainly attract human shoppers who don't know any better.

Red dye may actually be harmful to hummingbirds. Ornithologists who study hummingbirds have found the dye in the birds' waste products, which means their tiny delicate bodies do not metabolize it. If making your own nectar, just stick to a solution that is 1 part white cane sugar and 4 parts water, as recommended by the Audubon Society.

Undyed nectar (white cane sugar and water) is safest for hummingbirds.
Undyed nectar (white cane sugar and water) is safest for hummingbirds.

3. Hummingbirds Eat Only Nectar

Nectar is purely a source of carbohydrates and trace minerals. It doesn't contain any protein, which is necessary for growth and reproduction. Hummingbirds do drink a lot of nectar because it provides energy, but they also eat insects for protein. They eat ants and aphids on the trees where they perch and catch flying insects in mid-air. Insects can be 25% of a hummingbird's diet.

4. Hummingbirds Don't Have Feet or Legs

This myth may have arisen because hummingbird ornaments and decorations are often stylized without feet. A hummingbird's legs and feet are very short, but they exist. They have no trouble perching on branches and scooting sideways. Their lower limbs are difficult to see from a distance when they are zipping about from flower to flower, but if you stand close to your hummingbird feeder while the birds are feeding you will see their tiny feet tucked in close to the body near the tail.

Glass hummingbird sun catcher, not anatomically correct.
Glass hummingbird sun catcher, not anatomically correct.

5. A Hummingbird's Beak Acts Like a Straw

A hummingbird's bill opens and closes like any other bird's bill; it is not a tube as commonly believed. The way a hummingbird gets nectar out of a flower is by flicking its long tongue in and out and scooping it, similar to the way a dog drinks water.

6. Hummingbirds Are an Invasive Species From Europe or Asia

The hummingbirds you see today are 100% native to the Americas. Other pollinating birds around the world include sunbirds of Africa and Asia, and honeyeaters of Australia, but these birds do not hover like hummingbirds. Ancestors of today's hummingbirds may have lived in Europe and Asia millions of years ago. In 2004 a German ornithologist discovered a 30 million year old fossil of a bird with a long thin beak and wings that may have been adapted to hovering flight. All extant species of hummingbirds live in the Americas, with most species being found in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia.

7. Hummers Won't Visit Feeders Too Close to Humans

I never had much luck watching seed-eating birds up close at a birdseed feeder, but hummingbirds are a different story. Like crows, they are very curious birds and love to inspect man-made objects. Also like crows, they have excellent memory and can recognize human faces. Hummingbirds quickly learn to associate nectar feeders with the humans who refill them and they are not shy about drinking while you stand and watch up close. If you place the feeder near a window, they may hover at the glass and look in at you from time to time. We occasionally had hummingbirds fly in the house as our feeder was right by the patio door.

When you take the feeder down for cleaning and refilling the little birds can get impatient, hovering around the spot waiting for the feeder to reappear. And when you return with the feeder in hand ready to be rehung, the hummingbirds may not even wait for you to hang it, instead sipping the nectar right from your hand.

Unlike other birds, hummingbirds are unafraid of humans.
Unlike other birds, hummingbirds are unafraid of humans.
Try getting other species of wild birds to sit in your hands.
Try getting other species of wild birds to sit in your hands.

8. Hummingbirds Flock and Live in Groups

Hummingbirds are actually very solitary and territorial. You will rarely see more than two together. When it comes time to migrate during the fall, they fly solo. They don't even hang out with their mates after mating; females are solely responsible for raising their young.

9. You Can Expect Lots to Feed At Once, Like the Feeder Advertisement Shows

Because hummingbirds will aggressively defend their feeding territory from other hummingbirds, what many people observe at their feeder is a single hummingbird (usually male) who drinks regularly and chases away other hummers. If you hang another in the vicinity of the first you will only give your resident bully bird more food to guard. There are two schools of thought about how to get more hummingbirds to congregate in your yard.

  • Some say to hang lots of feeders close together or so that the territorial bird is overwhelmed with food to guard, gives up, and lets other hummers feed.
  • Some say hang lots of feeders out of sight of each other, since territorial hummers can't guard what they can't see.

If you do happen to see a few hummingbirds at one feeder, it is almost always a male with members of his small harem. I never got more than one hummingbird at a time to feed, even with several feeders in a cluster.

10. You Have to Hang Nectar Feeders to Attract Hummingbirds

Hanging a nectar feeder is certainly the easiest way to get hummingbirds to hang out in your garden, but planting nectar-rich flowers works just as well. The flowers don't necessarily have to be red, orange, or pink, although that does help. Some flowers that are hummingbirds love are

  • honeysuckle
  • eucalyptus
  • azalea
  • bee balm
  • columbine
  • weigela
  • foxglove
  • delphinium
  • trumpet vine
  • lobelia
  • milkweed

Red-orange colored trumpet vine flowers.
Red-orange colored trumpet vine flowers.

11. Keeping Your Feeder Out During Autumn Will Prevent Hummers from Migrating

You don't need to worry that keeping your feeder out during the autumn or even the winter will prevent local hummingbirds from migrating. They don't rely on feeders to survive and they instinctively know to migrate when the days get shorter. In places where it is warm year-round the hummers may not migrate at all. So, feel free to keep you feeder out as long as you see birds.

There are over 300 species of hummingbirds.
There are over 300 species of hummingbirds.

A Few Tips About Feeders

If you spot hummingbirds in your area and want to attract more of them to your house with nectar feeders, here are a few tips to keep them coming back for more.

  • Use a sugar water solution that is about 4 parts water to 1 part white cane sugar. Don't use raw sugar, brown sugar, or molasses since these contain too much iron. Don't use confectioner's sugar since it contains cornstarch and anti-caking agents. Don't use honey since it contains microbes that will make hummingbirds very sick and weak.
  • You don't have to boil the sugar water if your water source is clean.
  • Don't put red dye in the nectar.
  • Clean and refill the feeder at least once every 3-5 days, no matter how much nectar is still in the feeder. Sugar water not only can ferment in the sun, but also harbor bacteria and fungus that come from the birds. In cold weather you can get away with changing it once a week, but don't let it go longer than that.
  • If your birds don't drink a lot, save money by making small batches of nectar and only filling the feeder with 1/2 cup or 100 mL or so of nectar. Feeders usually have too much capacity, you don't need to fill them to the top.

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