Hummingbirds usually stay in Central America in the winter. However, their appearance is becoming common in the West Coast and Southeast parts of the US. So, if you spot a hummingbird or few in your backyard, there is no need to panic because they are just looking for food.
Hummingbirds have a remarkable tolerance to temperatures below zero as long as they continue to find food. So, it’s your responsibility to put up bird feeders in your backyard so that these tiny birds can survive the winter.
Hummingbirds keep up their strength primarily with sweet water in winter. However, they do like to eat insects from time to time. The size of these insects is one of the major factors why hummingbirds prefer them, as they are not a threat. Some of these insects include beetles, small spiders, mites, mosquitos, wasps, leafhoppers, and more. Hummingbirds can easily catch these insects by piercing them with their beak.
In the winter season, not all insects on the food chain of hummingbirds make an appearance in your backyard. Hence, you also need to hang bird feeders to help them thrive. Now that you know how hummingbirds survive in winter, let’s look at their food source:
Diet of Hummingbirds
Most people that hummingbirds have a small diet due to their tiny size. Don’t be fooled by their size because these birds can eat a lot. They usually consume food daily that equals half their body weight. While nectar and sweet water are the two things that attract hummingbirds, they enjoy insects occasionally. Their fast, forked tongue sucks the sweet nectar in 13 licks per second, which is surprisingly fast.
You could call these birds opportunistic feeders because they don’t pass up on fallen fruit. When a ripe fruit touches the ground, they approach it like thieves and finish it off in a couple of minutes. They even wait for woodpeckers to free the tree sap so they can drink it.
However, nectar is not always enough to keep these birds fed. Like us, they too need fat, fibers, oils, minerals, vitamins, salt, and protein in their diet. Even if they don’t find any food, they can survive because of their fast metabolism. When the food is scarce, they go into torpor, their deep sleep state, to conserve energy.
Let’s look at what insects hummingbirds eat in winter:
Beetles come out in winter in search of warm areas. These flying insects have thousands of species, out of which scientists have only been able to discover 25%. Following are the beetle types that hummingbirds feed on:
- Carpet Beetles (Anthrenus)
- Ground Beetles (Carabidae)
- Tiger Beetles (Cicindelinae)
- Stag Beetles (Lucanidae)
- Grapevine Beetles (Pelidnota punctata)
- Hercules Beetles (Dynastes)
- Sawyer Beetles (Monochamus)
- Japanese Beetles (Popillia japonica)
- Carrion Beetles (Silphidae)
These eight-legged creatures have spinnerets, which produce milk and venomous glands. There are more than 45,000 spider species spread into 120 families. Some of the most common spiders in the US that hummingbirds eat include:
- Ant Spiders (Zodariidae)
- Grass Spiders (Agelenopsis)
- Nursery Web Spiders (Pisauridae)
- Woodlouse Spiders (Dysdera crocata)
- Hobo Spiders (Tegenaria agrestis)
- Wolf Spiders (Lycosidae)
- Crab Spiders (Thomisidae)
- Black Widow Spiders (Latrodectus)
- Spitting Spiders (Scytodidae)
- Jumping Spiders (Salticidae)
Wasps are narrow-waisted and small insects with a large family with more than 1,000 recognized species. Some of the most common wasps that hummingbirds eat include:
- Yellowjacket (Dolichovespula)
- Sand Wasp (Bembicini)
- Ichneumon Wasps (Ichneumonidae)
- Black Wasps (Sphex pensylvanicus)
- Paper Wasps (Vespidae)
- Cicada Killers (Sphecius speciosus)
- Spider Wasp (Pompilidae)
- Mason or Potter Wasps (Eumeninae)
There are 20,000 recognized species of leafhoppers. They are plant-feeders and suck on grass, shrub, and tree sap. Some of the most common leafhoppers that hummingbirds eat include:
- Beet Leafhopper (Circulifer tenellus)
- Two-Spotted Leafhopper (Sophonia rufofascia)
- White Apple Leafhopper (Typhlocyba pomaria)
- Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter (Homalodisca vitripennis)
- Maize Leafhopper (Cicadulina mbila)
- Common Brown Leafhopper (Orosius orientalis)
- Blue-green Sharpshooter (Graphocephala atropunctata)
- Potato Leafhopper (Empoasca fabae)
- Rice Green Leafhopper (Nephotettix)
These eight-legged arthropods are quite small. You can spot these insects in soil and water and on plants, which is why hummingbirds snatch them easily.
The segmented and slender bodies of these insects have 3,500 different species. Hummingbirds usually snatch them out of spider webs along with the silk to build their nest.
Offering Food to Hummingbirds
Many birders dream of having hummingbirds as frequent visitors in their backyard. To ensure that these lovely birds keep visiting you, you need to supply an adequate amount of sweet water and fresh insects. If you are planning to put these insects in the bird feeders, there’s something you should know.
Hummingbirds don’t eat dead insects. They prefer them in their natural and raw form. Even dried insects have no appeal; by putting them in the bird feeders, you will only end up contaminating the feeders. However, there are ways to offer them these insects.
The insects mentioned above can survive in cold weather, but you can usually find them on leaves or warm corners. If winter brings snow with it, sweet water will be enough for hummingbirds, and they will reserve energy by going into torpor. However, if winter is just chilly with the grass still green, then here’s what you can do:
Allow the Grass to Grow: You can spot most of these insects on grass blades. So, before winter arrives, let your yard turn a little green and the grass taller. Make sure to pluck out the weeds because they will destroy all your hard work. Hummingbirds will be easily able to see leafhoppers and beetles on the leaves. You can deposit spiders in your backyard in snow and let the birds pick them off.
Introduce a Woodpecker in Your Backyard: A hummingbird will follow a woodpecker to find the spot where they have drilled a hole in the tree for sap. As soon as the woodpecker leaves the area, the hummingbirds will flock to the tree and drink the sap.
Do Not Clean the Spider Webs: Spiders often cocoon their meal in a silk web, which you can easily see on their web. While spiders are predatory and can kill hummingbirds, the smaller ones are the birds’ food source. They won’t pass an opportunity of having two meals at one time. So, leave the webs where they are and let the hummingbirds clean them for you.
Plant Winter Trees in Your Backyard: A few fruit trees that you can plant in your backyard include persimmons, crabapples, pomegranates, apples, citrus, strawberries, cherries, and raspberries. The bright color of these fruits will attract more hummingbirds to your backyard and offer them a feast.
Don’t Forget the Sweet Water Feeders: In case the hummingbirds cannot find insects in your backyard, make sure that the feeders are full of sweet water. Tape a hand warmer to the feeders, so the sweet water does not freeze. Rotate the feeders often to keep the supply fresh and stop ants from invading them.
Hummingbirds are pros at surviving the winter season. Even if they don’t find food, they go into a deep sleep and let their metabolism keep them alive. However, you still need to ensure that these tiny birds can find the food source if they fly into your backyard.
Do not fill up the feeders with insects. Attract them with bright flowers and fruits instead of hunting for insects.