The photos are graphic, sensational, and distressing, but are they true? Will a praying mantis actually eat a hummingbird? Learning the truth behind this outrageous claim can help birders protect their favorite flying jewels with ease.
Doubting the Photos
The image of a mangled hummingbird dangling from the sharply jagged forearms of a praying mantis is easy to doubt. Photos of this questionable phenomenon are often amateurish, with poor focus and composition, detailing subject material that seems to be manipulated or fake. These photos are also exceedingly rare, as the idea of a praying mantis eating a hummingbird is relatively poorly documented, and there is not a great deal of evidence to support the claim. Whenever one of these photos does circulate, it is often subject to skepticism, derision, and uncertainty.
So, Are the Photos True?
Skeptics should look again, however, because these photos are true, and praying mantises will indeed attack and eat hummingbirds. These large, carnivorous insects may perch on hummingbird feeders waiting for bees and wasps – some of their favorite prey – to approach, and when an unwary bird gets too close, the mantid may strike. Its powerful, sharp forearms are more than capable of spearing a hummingbird, and like all predators, the insect will not let a meal go to waste and the bird will be consumed.
It is important to note, however, that not all praying mantises are capable of subduing a hummingbird. Only the largest mantids, those that approach four inches in size, could hunt the birds. The Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) has been documented as killing hummingbirds, and it is one of the largest mantids. Such attacks are also not likely to be deliberate, as most mantids are interested only in smaller, more vulnerable prey. When a mantis is desperate with hunger, however, it may gamble on a riskier attack. Because a mantis has extraordinary hunting reflexes, these mantids may even be striking at hummingbirds before they fully realize what prey is within their reach. When they do encounter a hummingbird, the strike must be extraordinarily lucky for it to be successful and actually capture the bird.
Once impaled, the mantis will gradually eat some or all of the bird. The insects go for the most nutrient-rich material, including inner organs, blood, and brains, but may not consume the muscles of the bird. Other inedible material, including feathers, feet, bill, and bones, are also generally untouched. How much of the bird is consumed depends on the size and hunger of the mantis, and after it has finished feeding, it will shake its legs to dislodge the carcass. Other, smaller insects or scavengers may then take advantage of the unusual and unexpected food.
In addition to hummingbirds, these large mantids have been documented attacking other small birds. Warblers and vireos have also been victims of praying mantises, though because these birds are significantly larger than hummingbirds, attacks on them are even less successful.
Other Unusual Hummingbird Predators
Praying mantises are not the only unexpected predators that may target hummingbirds. In addition to these large insects, hummingbirds have also fallen victim to…
- Orb-weaver spiders, which may catch hummingbirds in their webs
- Snakes and lizards, which prey not only on adult birds but also on hummingbird eggs
- Frogs and fish that may snag hummingbirds flying low over ponds
- Shrikes, roadrunners, kestrels, and other predatory birds that eat smaller birds
Protecting Hummingbirds at Your Feeders
Despite so many unusual threats facing hummingbirds, it is easy to protect the birds at your feeders, both from aggressive mantids as well as other potential predators.
- Move nectar feeders away from shrubbery where carnivorous insects or other predators may be hiding. Instead, place feeders in more open areas or only surrounded by low plants.
- Use a wide cover above the feeder to discourage mantids from perching on the feeder itself. Hummingbirds will have no trouble approaching the feeder from underneath the cover.
- Do not release mantids in your garden for insect control. Instead, rely on hummingbirds and other birds to control insect populations as well as eat weed seeds.
- Take multiple steps to keep bees and wasps away from hummingbird feeders so these insects are not attracting hungry mantids.
Praying mantises can be very beneficial insects in the garden and landscape, and if you do find one near a hummingbird feeder, gently use a stick to move it to a more suitable area. It will easily find food away from the nectar feeder, without putting hummingbirds at risk.