Maybe you’re interested in attracting hummingbirds to your garden and want to know how to set up the ideal feeder for them. Or maybe you just love hummingbirds and want to know more about their vision, why they like specific colors and what they see when they’re in your backyard.
No matter your reason for visiting, this post will tell you all about what colors attract hummingbirds and the fascinating science behind hummingbird vision.
Yes, Hummingbirds Are Attracted to Red Colors
Most people believe hummingbirds are only or largely attracted to the color red. That’s why red is the most common color you’ll see for hummingbird feeders and why people used to always dye the nectar for feeders a red tint. However, there are other ways and colors that attract hummingbirds.
By the way, while we’re discussing the red nectar, buying and making red nectar has become a thing of the past because it basically isn’t necessary and it’s also suspected to be harmful to the hummingbird.
The Amazing Hummingbird Vision
You probably already know this, but we have discovered that vision in animals can vary a great deal by species.
Humans have three “cones” in the retinas in our eyes that help us see a certain range of colors. For us, it is the colors of the rainbow and the “non-spectrum” color, purple. Many animals have only two cones and see fewer colors, often colors in the blue and yellow range, which is similar to color blind humans.
However, some animals have more “rods” in their eyes that enable them to see in different or broader ranges of light more effectively than we can. They don’t necessarily have poorer vision than we do, they just see differently. We see more colors, but they can see in the dark or detect movement more readily, which is how they adapted to best live in their natural environments.
We have been studying hummingbird vision since the 1920s, at first noting their responses to natural flowers and then using commercial hummingbird feeders. Evidence of their color preferences has been and remains inconclusive, but we have discovered that birds have a fourth cone in their eyes that allows them to see ultraviolet colors that humans can’t see, or even completely fathom, because we only have three cones.
Hummingbirds can see ultraviolet light itself and ultraviolet combined with other colors like ultraviolet+red, ultraviolet+green, and ultraviolet+yellow. It is also possible for them to distinguish between different tints and shades of the same ultraviolet color.
This was determined in a scientific study published this year, where hummingbirds learned to find a feeder filled with sugar water using only ultraviolet light and different shades of ultraviolet colors.
This heightened color vision helps them locate food in their environment, interact with colorful mates, and move around with more ease than other animals to navigate terrain and evade predators.
Why the Color Red?
The ability to see ultraviolet light is believed to enhance warm colors like red, orange, and yellow, so red and other warm colors probably do stand out to them more than other colors.
There is an advantage in this for them because in many of their habitats, the flowers with nectar containing the highest sugar content, and therefore more energy for the demands of their highly active bodies, are usually red.
This means hummingbirds not only see red better, but they know to associate red with the best food.
But Not Just Red
Hummingbirds have the ability to adapt. In environments where red is the most common color for nectar containing flowers, they gravitate towards red. But hummingbirds do the same thing in Brazil with the dull brown that is the region’s sweetest flower, and in regions of Mexico where purple or blue flowers are blooming with the sweetest nectar.
Studies with different colored feeders has determined that hummingbirds can discern no preference for color alone, that hummingbirds would go to any color feeder with equal frequency, and that a variety of factors might determine a hummingbird’s feeder preference.
In the right situation, blue, brown, or green can signal food to a hummingbird, and in that case, be more attractive.
The Truth About Colors That Attract Hummingbirds
So, what colors attract hummingbirds? A combination of what they see the best and what they have learned to expect. They aren’t limited to sight like many people have believed. Hummingbirds use colors and their sense of taste to find sweet, enriching nectar.
Most of them know to associate red flowers with the sweetest nectar, so providing them with a red feeder is like putting up a flashing, “Eat Here” sign. They both see it better and know it means food. But they don’t rely on the color to know where to find nectar and will come to any color feeder with, as far as anyone has noticed in studies so far, equal frequency. So, if you get a hummingbird feeder in another color, they will still use it.
Hummingbirds will come wherever there is nectar. You can make it the most enjoyable, comfortable, and safer experience by selecting a feeder with certain features. You can offer them a red or brightly colored feeder on a perch, which gives them a comfortable place to rest while they eat, though they will also hover and eat. Tubular holes for eating mimic the flower experience and help keep the nectar clean. Many hummingbird feeders have flower-like shapes around the holes to make them seem more natural. The most realistic flower-design may be the most satisfying.
Make sure to offer them homemade nectar made of sugar and water, or to check store-bought nectar to ensure it doesn’t contain anything harmful. You will then want to change the nectar frequently to make sure it is clean and unspoiled. A special moat will prevent ants from invading your hummingbird feeder.
Have fun attracting hummingbirds to your garden and be prepared to be fascinated by these marvelous creatures.