What Do Baby Hummingbirds Eat?

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No other species encapsulates the phrase “tiny but mighty” quite as well as hummingbirds. While marveling at the small size of these birds, it often leads us to think about just how small their nest must be. And those tiny eggs! And itty bitty babies! Since we don’t see them at our hummingbird feeders, what do baby hummingbirds eat?

Newborn Hummingbirds

After a female hummingbird has been impregnated by the male, she is on her own to construct the nest and raise the young. It will take a female about a week to construct her tiny cup shaped nest. Nests are made from moss, lichen, plant fibers, bits of bark and leaves, and spiderweb silk. Usually two eggs are laid, but sometimes only one. If two chicks are hatched, chances of survival increase because they can help to keep each other warm while mother is off the nest catching food. 

Hummingbird babies are very tiny. They weigh less than one gram and are only about 2 centimeters long. When first born their eyes remain closed and they have no feathers. It will be about two weeks before their eyes begin to open and feathers start to grow.  

The length of time until babies leave the nest varies slightly between species. Overall, most hummingbird babies leave the nest about three weeks after hatching. 

How do baby hummingbirds eat

Hummingbirds have a special sac in their throat called a crop. The crop is basically a pocket in the esophagus where food can be stored. Adults can use this to gather extra food to save for later. Food in the crop has to be released down to the stomach to actually be eaten and digested. A handy feature on days when food may be hard to find. Female hummingbirds can also use their crop to gather food to feed their babies. 

For many days after hatching, the young hummingbirds eyes remain closed. Listening for chirps, feeling vibrations in the nest made by her landing or in the air from her wings, are all ways the babies can sense when their mother is near. When they sense her, they will poke their heads up out of the nest and open their mouths to receive food. 

When the babies open their mouth to beg for food, mom will insert her beak into their mouth and expel the contents of her crop into their throat. The food in the crop has not made it to her stomach and therefore remains undigested at the time of feeding.  

What do baby hummingbirds eat

Baby hummingbirds eat small insects and nectar, fed to them by their mother. Feedings will happen on average 2-3 times per hour.  The percentage of insects versus nectar fed to the young can vary by species and by habitat. However it is important to feed as many insects as possible. During the babies growth and development they need a lot of nutrients, proteins and fats that nectar alone cannot provide. 

Small spiders are one of hummingbirds favorite insects to catch. Hummingbirds will also eat mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, ants, aphids and mites. They can use their long bill and tongue to pluck insects off branches and leaves. They also are very skilled at catching insects mid-air, a practice called “hawking”.  

As the young get older and have left the nest, the mother may continue to help feed them for another 1-2 weeks. While also helping to teach them how to find their own food of course. Check out our article on how to feed insects to hummingbirds to help provide food for the hummers in your yard.

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What to do with abandoned baby hummingbirds

Every nature lovers fear, finding an abandoned baby bird. It’s a very difficult and delicate thing to care for a baby hummingbird. Sadly even the most well intentioned people can end up trying and failing to save a bird that didn’t need saving. To avoid causing harm, let’s first discuss how to tell if a nest has truly been abandoned. Then we will list advice from the San Diego Humane Society’s Project Wildlife on how to care for baby hummingbirds while finding professional help.

How to tell if a hummingbird nest has been abandoned

Most concern comes from seeing babies in a nest with no parent in sight. When babies are newly hatched and have no feathers, the mother needs to sit on the nest consistently to keep the chicks warm. However once the chicks have begun to grow their own feathers (about 10-12 days post hatch), this changes drastically.

The babies are now able to keep themselves warm, and she doesn’t need to sit on the nest. In fact, she will often stay away from the nest the majority of the time (day and night) to avoid catching the attention of potential predators. Mom visits the nest for a few seconds to feed the young and is then off again. These feeding visits can last for mere seconds. Typically this occurs a few times an hour but in some circumstances the time between visits may be as long as an hour or more. 

You can see how a concerned nest watcher could easily miss seeing these quick feedings and believe that the mother is no longer coming back. You need to watch a nest for two hours consistently before making a determination if the adult is coming back. 

Also, don’t be fooled by silent babies. If you are under the impression that quiet babies that aren’t chirping means they are ill, think again. Staying silent is another defense hummingbirds have against predators, they don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention. They will often peep and chirp when mom comes by to feed them, but quickly go silent again until her return. In fact, hummingbird babies that are constantly making sounds for ten or more minutes without a parent in sight might indicate they are in distress. 

If you find a hatchling hummingbird

A hatchling is newly born (0-9 days old), and will have gray/black skin with no sign of feathers, or only pin-feathers which are not fluffy and look like little tubes. 

  • Don’t try and feed these babies, call for help asap
  • Try and keep the baby in the nest
  • If a nest isn’t available line a small container with tissue and keep the baby warm by keeping them near a heat producing lamp. 
  • Watch out for overheating, if the baby is open-mouth breathing or stretching it’s neck out it is too warm, reduce heat. 

If you find a nestling hummingbird

Nestlings are 10-15 days old. They will be able to open their eyes a little and appear to have some feathers. As we discussed above, this begins the period of time where mom will be away from the nest most of the time. She will return for a few seconds to feed the babies at least once an hour, often more. Watch the nest for two hours straight before determining she is not returning. 

  • If fallen from the nest, pick them up carefully and return them to the nest. If the nest appears overrun with insects such as ants that might be harming the babies, construct an artificial nest and place it nearby. 
  • After putting baby birds back in the nest, watch to make sure the mother is returning to feed them
  • If it has been determined the nest is abandoned, sugar water (nectar) can be fed until a rehabber can take the birds. Use a dropper to drop three drops into the baby’s mouth every 30 minutes. Any nectar spilled on the birds must be wiped up immediately or their feathers will become too sticky and matted. Do no feed nectar for longer than 72 hours. 

If you find a pre-fledgling hummingbird

Pre-fledglings  (16+ days old) have their full feathers and are just about ready to leave the nest. They are beginning to explore and are often found on the ground having fallen out of the nest. If you can see the nest, place them back inside and watch for mom’s return.

  • If abandoned, you can feed 5 drops of nectar every 30 minutes until a rehabber can take them.
  • Any nectar dripped on the birds will need to be wiped off
  • Do not feed nectar for more than 72 hours

In all cases you are doing emergency care for the bird while trying to find a local rehabber who can either give you professional advice or take the bird for care. It is important to let trained professionals rear these young birds. Here are some links that may help you find rehabbers near you. These lists are not often kept up to date however and an internet search of “wildlife rehab + your state” or checking your state government’s department of wildlife page might yield better results. 


Conclusion

Baby hummingbirds aren’t able to hunt for their own food until they are about a 3-4 weeks old. In the meantime, mom keeps them fed with a combination of small insects and nectar, just like she eats. She will feed them by regurgitating food stored in her crop. Once the babies have grown their own feathers, they spend most of their time alone, quietly snoozing in their nest while mom only visits to drop off some food. Make sure you are quite certain a nest is abandoned before intervening on the birds behalf. If needed, feed regular hummingbird nectar while contacting a wildlife rehabilitator. 

About Melanie

Melanie has been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and photographing birds of all types.