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Can Hummingbirds Smell the Nectar in the Feeder?

Can Hummingbirds Smell the Nectar in the Feeder?

Ever wondered how hummingbirds find food in your feeder? Many believe that hummingbirds have a sharp olfactory sense. But, do they find food by smelling it in the air? Don’t worry; we will help you. Let’s investigate in more detail right below! 

Do hummingbirds have a sense of smell?

Hummingbirds, unlike the common opinion and research on some hummingbird species, appear to have an active sense of smell.

We’ve known for a prolonged period that New World Vultures, like many seabirds, have a keen sense of smell. This is owing to their huge olfactory bulbs, which are a spherical mass of tissue containing numerous types of nerve cells involved in the sense of smell. The olfactory bulbs receive smell information from the nose and convey it to the brain via the olfactory tracts. Hummingbirds’ olfactory bulbs are about half the size of seabirds and somewhat smaller than Rock Pigeons.

Hummingbirds, on the other hand, have incredibly small olfactory bulbs. According to previous research, the birds do not show a preference for different-smelling flowers. In contrast to insect-pollinated flowers, which have a strong aroma, bird-pollinated blossoms have not.

Scientists from the University of California, Riverside, funded by the National Science Foundation, have demonstrated for the first time that hummingbirds can detect insects and identify the scent that assists them in avoiding danger while searching for nectar to eat.

Over a hundred hummingbirds were given the option of choosing between two feeders by the researchers. Sugar water alone and sugar water perfumed with one of the ant compounds were used in the experiments. The hummingbirds avoided the compounds released by deadly ants, but they didn’t avoid odors that were safe. They were unconcerned by the smell of a popular food additive that isn’t found in nature, as well as the aroma of European honeybees.

So, yes, hummingbirds can smell and use their senses to make critical decisions. 

Moving on, let’s understand whether hummingbirds use their sense of smell to identify nectar in the feeder or not. Stay tuned! 

Can hummingbirds smell the nectar in the feeder? 

We have already discussed that hummingbirds have some sense of smell. Now, coming back to your question, can they smell the nectar in the feeder? 

The answer is, it depends! Let’s get into the deeper aspects of the topic. 

Finding feeder

Hummingbirds have small olfactory lobes and a feeble sense of smell. They do smell their surroundings and find their way out. As humans, we cannot get any smell in sugar water or pure nectar. So, it’s understood that hummingbirds need a more developed olfactory sense to identify the smell of sugar water and find a feeder. 

However, hummingbirds are tiny creatures. Their noses don’t have enough room for an advanced and alleviated sense of smell. So, they cannot smell sugar water. It rules out the hypothesis of hummingbirds using their sense of smell to find feeders.

Sensing insects

Insects and hummingbirds live in a closed ecosystem. As hummingbirds have nectar as their natural diet, many insects have it too. For example, European honeybees love nectar. They can easily be found in flowers that the hummers love. It can create tension, however. 

Similarly, these insects can be present in your feeder to consume the nectar you provide to the hummingbirds. Consequently, they can sting the hummers. As research says that hummingbirds can smell the presence of insects in the sugar water, they will likely abandon the infested feeder and move on to the others to save themselves. 

Identifying chemicals released from insects

Do you know? Formic acid is a common chemical that ants inject into the victims they bite. The immense pain and allergy that we observe after facing an ant bite are due to the presence of formic acid in our bodies. Although we cannot smell formic acid, some scientists say that hummingbirds can. 

Similarly, the hummers can detect many other insect-borne chemicals in the sugar water if those pests visit your feeders. The hummingbirds identify such a dangerous presence and leave the feeder for safer ones. 

Making critical decisions when in danger

Hummingbirds are small creatures. Other birds and insects can easily prey on and harm them. However, they are hard to be trapped in during flight due to their high speeds. But, danger reaches them when eating. 

So, nature has gifted them with the ability to dodge such dangers uniquely. They do it through the sense of smell. During cases where a predator feeds from their feeders, the olfactory senses of these birds get active. They quickly identify unusually smelling sugar water and jump onto safer food sources to protect themselves from potential threats. 

We knew that hummers cannot smell before the research rolled out. Since it came out, we realized that hummingbirds use their sense of smell to find safer food sources or feeders. 

Since hummingbirds don’t use their sense of smell to locate a feeder, how do they find a feeder then? Let’s analyze below! 

How do hummingbirds identify sugar-water feeders?

Hummingbirds use their vision and taste to identify sugar water and find feeders. Here are the factors through which the hummers find feeders. 

  • Resembling shapes: If the hummingbirds have been feeding on feeders earlier, they will remember the feeder shapes. So, once they see a new feeder, they will know it contains food. 
  • Flower structures: Most hummingbird feeders have flower-like structures as suckers. Hummingbirds think them to be real and rush towards them to get nectar. 
  • Bright colors: Hummingbirds see red, orange, and yellow colors more brightly than we see. So, if you mix some food coloring in your food, hummingbirds will see them and get an urge to try the food in your feeder. 
  • Sweet taste: Finally, when hummingbirds reach your feeder, they will get the sweet taste of the sugar water, consider it to be energy-rich, and start drinking the nectar you provide. 


Hummingbirds can smell sugar water in some cases. However, they don’t use smell senses to find feeders. They use more senses, like vision and taste, to find feeders and detect sugar water or nectar.