Is it a beak or a bill? Ornithologists and biologists both agree that when it comes to the hummingbird, you can call it whichever you like. Either way, when most people see that long thin bill, they assume that the hummingbird gets its nutrition by ‘sucking’ it up. It’s a common misconception that the hummingbird’s tongue acts like a straw. However, experts now know this is not true.
How the Hummingbird Uses its Bill
The hummingbird’s bill is longer in proportion to their entire body. Both the length and shape help the hummingbird reach deep into a flower to get the nectar that is a source of nutrition. However, contrary to popular belief, the hummingbird’s tongue isn’t like a straw at all. It may surprise you to learn that the hummingbird does not suck the nectar from flowers.
Like a dog, the hummingbird laps the nectar from the flower. Though this may seem like the bird may not get enough nectar, a hummingbird can lick up to thirteen times per second—much faster than a dog. With this speedy ability, the hummingbird has no problem getting the nectar it needs to survive. And it’s a good thing because a hummingbird needs to eat half its body weight in sugar daily. Because of this high demand for nutrition, they must eat a meal up to every ten minutes. For an idea of what that means, think of a human’s eight-hour day. In eight hours, the hummingbird may have eaten forty-eight meals!
See also: A Guide to North American Hummingbirds
Not Just Nectar
While most people associate hummingbirds with nectar, just as man can not live on bread alone, the hummingbird can not live on nectar exclusively. The hummingbird eats insects, and eats lots of them. It is not unheard of for the hummingbird to eat hundreds, even thousands, of insects daily. This might shock most people as they picture the hummingbird’s long pointy bill lapping up nectar from the flowers in their garden. How does the hummingbird eat insects?
Most birds that are insectivores have bills that are designed to eat them by dismembering them. The hummingbird’s long thin bill is unable to pick an insect apart piece by piece to eat. Because of this, the hummingbird must swallow the insect whole. Ornithologists have recorded hummingbirds throwing their heads back to swallow insects. Because of their small size, the hummingbird hunts for insects that are easy to capture and swallow whole. While their bill makes it easy for them to get nectar from stationery flowers, it’s easier for the hummingbird to snatch insects in motion. However, their bill makes it possible for them to feed on insects on leaves as they feed on nectar from flowers.
The Benefits of Inviting Hummingbirds to Your Yard
As a backyard birdwatcher and nature lover, knowing how and what the hummingbird eats can benefit you. While most birdwatchers hang a hummingbird feeder in their yard to catch a glimpse of these jewel-like birds, attracting hummingbirds to your yard is a great technique for natural pest control. With their voracious appetite for both nectar and insects, you will be helping the flowers in your yard bloom while keeping those pesky bugs under control. Inviting hummingbirds to your yard is a beautiful and natural means of doing both.