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Nectar eaters

White-tipped Sicklebill
White-tipped Sicklebill
Eutoxeres aquila
Credit: Lou Hegedus
(Size: 137.26 kb)

Trochilidae are much evolved nectar eaters that rely almost exclusively on the sugars they extract from flower nectar. In fact, 90% of their diet is composed of nectar. Their beaks, which are particularly slender and long, are very well adapted to collecting nectar. For example, the very curved beaks of the Buff-tailed Sicklebill (Eutoxeres condamini) and of the White-tipped Sicklebill (Eutoxeres aquila) are a particularly good fit with the curve of the flowers on which they feed, such as Heliconias and Centropogons.

In quantity

Anna's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird
Calypte anna
Credit: Corydora
(Size: 22.95 kb)

The daily energy intake required for a 4- to 5-gram hummingbird is from 30 to 35 kJ. Thus, hummingbirds must consume nectar from 1000 to 2000 flowers every day to meet this need. Their daily intake of water and nectar totals close to 160% of their body mass. For comparison purposes, an average-sized man (80 kg) would have to eat about 130 kg of hamburgers per day at a rate of 3 half-kilogram hamburgers, 6 times an hour, for close to 15 hours. Now consider the long periods of rest needed to digest that and save energy.

A strategic approach!

The hummingbird's extreme need for food causes fierce competition among individual birds. Generally speaking, males and females live solitary lives and defend sources of nectar from potential competitors. At times, they extend their strategy to collecting nectar from flowers located on the periphery of their territory to use up those resources and thus discourage any competitor that might try to feed there. Many species don't really establish food-source territories; they content themselves with exploring areas that are too scattered to be defended. In the range between territoriality and feeding in undefended areas, hummingbirds may employ other strategies that depend on the dispersion of the flowers, the morphology of the hummingbird and the quantity of nectar.

Hummingbird drinking flower nectar (Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

Protein supplement

Holes from Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Holes from Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Credit: Serge Beaudette
(Size: 40.88 kb)

Hummingbirds often complement their regular diet with pollen and arthropods. Pollen essentially contains amino acids and arthropods add a protein supplement. Flies and wasps are their main prey, but they also eat spiders, ants and small beetles. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) feeds on insects, especially those in tree holes made by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The Tooth-billed Hummingbird (Androdon aequatorialis) is a spider-catching specialist. It probes curled up leaves and hollow spaces, spots where spiders often hide.

For more information on hummingbird feeders, follow this link.

To do the "drink by capillary action" experiment, follow this link.

For more information on the oral apparatus of hummingbirds, follow this link.

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