It doesn’t take long to notice that hummingbirds are drawn to bright, colorful flowers — especially red, orange, pink, and yellow ones. This makes the question, “Do hummingbirds see color?” pretty easy to answer: yes!
But like any curious birder, one question often leads to others:
- What does the world look like to a hummingbird?
- Do hummingbirds see all the same colors as humans — or maybe even more colors?
- Are there any colors that hummingbirds can’t see?
- Why are hummingbirds drawn to some colorful blooms and not others?
- Should I use red food dye in my feeders to attract hummingbirds?
Let’s take a deep dive into the colorful world of hummingbirds!
What Makes Hummingbirds’ Vision Different From Humans?
Hummingbirds are able to see a more vibrant array of colors than humans, thanks to the extra type of cone they have in their eyes.
Humans have three types of cones, which allow us to see red, green, and blue light. Birds, on the other hand, have a fourth type of cone, which allows them to perceive ultraviolet light, too.
Inside Science explains:
To see if birds can perceive additional nonspectral colors, scientists experimented with wild broad-tailed hummingbirds in an alpine meadow in Gothic, Colorado, which the birds frequented during breeding season. The researchers built LED tubes that could display a wide range of colors, including combinations involving ultraviolet light. Before dawn each summer for three years, they set up two feeders — one with sugar water, the other plain water — and placed an LED tube beside each feeder so the hummingbirds could learn to visit rewarding colors.
Based on more than 6,000 feeder visits, the scientists found hummingbirds can see not only purple, but also ultraviolet plus green, ultraviolet plus red, and ultraviolet plus yellow. They could also tell apart different mixtures of ultraviolet and red light as well as ultraviolet and green light.
What Does the World Look Like to a Hummingbird?
As we have established, hummingbirds have four types of cone cells in their eyes, allowing them to perceive more colors than humans can.
This expanded color vision gives hummingbirds a view of the world that is richer in hues. They can see a range of colors from red through to ultraviolet in the 300-400 nanometer wavelength range. These include shades of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
The extra ultraviolet cone allows hummingbirds to spot the “hidden” patterns on flowers that guide them to nectar. Many petals have ultraviolet markings, like “bullseye” targets, that are invisible to humans but help guide pollinators. Sunflowers are a great example of this!
So when a hummingbird sees a flower, it sees not only the flower color we see but a whole other layer of patterns in the ultraviolet spectrum. This helps them find and feed from flowers more efficiently. Their specialized color vision perfectly adapts them to their role as pollinators.
More Questions About Hummingbird Vision
What an amazing thing, to be a hummingbird that can see so many more colors than we can!
Researchers are still studying to understand hummingbird vision, as well as the vision of other birds. Here are some of the questions I look forward to researchers answering:
- What is the full spectrum of colors that hummingbirds can perceive?
- Do different species of hummingbirds perceive color differently from one another?
- How does the ability to see ultraviolet light impact hummingbirds and their foraging behavior, flower selection, or even interactions with other birds?
- Does a female hummingbird’s perception of color affect her selection of a mate?
Why Are Hummingbirds Attracted To Certain Colors?
If you have spent any time watching hummingbirds feeding, you have probably seen them go directly to colorful blooms that are red, pink, yellow, and orange. In fact, I have hummingbirds that regularly go to the artificial wreath that I put on my front door in the summer because they are attracted to the variety of colors. They quickly leave when they realize that the wreath is fake, but there are phlox blooms nearby to satisfy their need for nectar-rich flowers.
Hummingbirds need to consume large amounts of calories each day, and they get these from three main sources: flower nectar, insects, and hummingbird feeders.
Colorful blooms in red, pink, orange, and yellow are usually rich in nectar — and therefore, in those healthy calories that hummingbirds need to thrive.
Why Are Hummingbirds Attracted To Red Feeders?
Many hummingbird feeders are red, and people often fill clear feeders with sugar water that they have dyed red.
This is because hummingbirds will go to red feeders just like they will go to red blooms. They can spot them easily, especially in early spring when they arrive after their long migration. However, there is strong anecdotal evidence that red dye may be unhealthy for hummingbirds’ sensitive biological systems.
At Wild Bird Scoop, we recommend against using red sugar water, as there have been some concerning reports about the safety of red dye. It has not been proven safe for hummingbirds, and any of the benefits associated with red dye can be achieved simply by using a red feeder.
Can I Attract Hummingbirds to My Yard With Colorful Plants?
Now that’s a great question!
If hummingbirds love big, beautiful, colorful blooms, does that mean you can attract them to your yard or garden by intentionally planting these flowers? Absolutely!
How to Plant a Hummingbird Garden
When designing a hummingbird garden, focus on tubular-shaped flowers in their favorite natural colors: red, orange, pink, purple, and yellow.
Some of our favorite flowers for hummingbirds are:
- Trumpet Vine
- Red Hot Poker
- Bee Balm
- Coral Honeysuckle
- Cardinal Flower
- Bleeding Heart
- Red Sage
- Hummingbird Mint
- Scarlet Sage
- Mexican Sunflower
- Trumpet Creeper
To choose the right varieties, be sure to check which flowers grow well in your geographic area. You can use a hardiness zone finder to identify which flowers you can grow in your climate.
Some additional things to keep in mind as you create your hummingbird garden:
- Choose plants that will bloom sequentially, as they will provide nectar throughout the season.
- A mix of annuals and perennials will help you develop a thriving hummingbird habitat.
- If you want to use less water, choose native plants in your area! These will also be more hardy and sustainable.
- Avoid pesticides, especially because hummingbirds need to eat large quantities of insects to survive.
- Create shade for your hummingbird visitors, as they can’t spend all day in the sun.
- Offer water through a small birdbath that you keep clean and filled with fresh water.
With some planning, you can create a colorful paradise for hummingbirds, right in your backyard or garden. Even a small, colorful window box or an assortment of container plants on a porch can attract hummingbirds!