How to Safely Feed the World’s Smallest Bird as More Hummingbirds Return to Washington


With spring coming into full swing, birds will be migrating to Washington state, occupying residents' bird feeders. One bird in particular to keep an eye out for is the hummingbird.

Hummingbirds are the smallest migrating bird, according to the Seattle Audubon Center. While in flight, their wings flutter up to 80 times a second in a figure-eight motion and up to 30 mph, according to the Hummingbird Guide website. They're also the only birds that move backwards and sideways, according to the National Audubon Society.

To achieve their incredibly fast and complex flight patterns, a hummingbird's body has adapted to withstand high blood sugar levels that would be hazardous to humans. They must feed almost constantly.

"I've heard they need to eat as often as every 15 minutes," said Suzanne Harkness, development and community engagement manager at Tahoma Audubon Center in Lakewood, in an interview. The center aims to promote wildlife conservation and protection through education.

If you're interested in befriending some birds this spring, Harkness and other online research centers explain what you should know about hummingbirds, including how their bodies work and ways to properly feed them.

Hummingbird Behavior

To some people's surprise, the tiny avian creatures only inhabit North, Central and South America, Harkness says.

Across the Americas, there are over 300 species of hummingbirds, according to the American Bird Conservatory. But Washington state only sees a few of them.

Four species of hummingbirds regularly travel through the Evergreen State: the rufous, Anna's, black-chinned and calliope hummingbirds. However, residents in the Puget Sound region will only get to see the Anna's and rufous varieties.

Harkness says that in the last 50 years, the Anna's hummingbird stopped migrating, so it's now a permanent, year-round resident of Washington state. Rufous birds on the other hand migrate to Washington from Mexico during spring and summer for breeding. Male hummingbirds are polygamous, meaning they mate with several females and leave the parenting duties to the moms.

The birds, in general, are very territorial and have bold temperaments. Males in particular will stand their ground (or air) when it comes to guarding their territory or food supply.

"They're really not shy," Harkness says. "I myself have been buzzed by them when going to refill the feeder ... like they've buzzed my head,"

Hummingbird Bodily Functions and Flight Patterns

Hummingbirds possess incredible metabolism, over 70 times higher than a human's. While not flying, the birds' heart beats around 400 times per minute, Harkness says. But while in flight, it can exceed 1,200 beats per second. For comparison, the normal resting heart rate for an adult human is 60-100 beats per minute. For a young adult human, a high heart rate would be somewhere between 140-180 beats per second.

To maintain its highly active body from overworking, a hummingbird enters a semi-hibernation state while sleeping called torpor. In this state of hibernation, the bird will often sleep upside down. Their bodily functions also drastically shift so they can conserve calories:

  • Body temperature drops as much as 50 degrees
  • Breathing slows or is totally absent
  • Metabolic rate slows as much as 95%
  • Heart beat slows to as low as 40-50 beats per minute
  • The bird's expend about 50% of its normal energy

To an unassuming observer, it may appear that the sleeping bird is dead. But unlike other birds, this near-death state is normal for the hummingbird.

Tips for Feeding Hummingbirds

It's well-known that hummingbirds are attracted to sugar-rich nectar, which they need to maintain their high blood-sugar and glucose levels. The birds also eat other plants and bugs like gnats and flies.

Harkness and other bird society websites have tips on what you can do to safely feed a hummingbird.

Keep the Feeder Clean

Harkness says one of the most important things you can do is to keep the nectar feeders clean. "Depending on the number of hummingbirds in an area ... [the dish] can grow algae, grow mold," she says. When cleaning the container, use warm water and non-toxic soap.

Carefully measure

When placing nectar outside, be sure the liquid contains the proper water-to-sugar ratio. It should contain four parts water for every one part sugar. Use regular white sugar, not brown or raw.

Avoid Food Dyes

Hummingbirds have heightened visual sensitivity to the color red, according to bird product website Perky Pet. They're attracted to the color because many of the nectars they eat are red. The birds have a great memory, and so they will often associate the color red with nectar food sources. Therefore, it might seem like a good idea to use a red-colored nectar dish for feeding the birds or to even dye your nectar red. But Harkness warns not to alter the color of the liquid because the dye is actually hazardous to the birds.