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The Predatory Threat to Hummingbirds

Praying Mantis and Hummingbird Predators

Praying mantises are a welcome addition to the garden, helping control pests and eating weed seeds. But if they hang out near your hummingbird feeder, they’ll also be hunting hummers.

Though one anecdote doesn’t make a finding, there are several accounts of hummingbirds being caught by mantises. And a recent study confirms the phenomenon is real.

Why They Prey on Hummingbirds

Praying mantises can be a boon in the garden, helping to control pest populations. But they’re also very effective predators, and hummingbirds are their preferred prey. A study by Nyffeler and his American co-authors, published this summer in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, found 147 documented instances of mantises capturing and eating birds, most of them hummingbirds.

Many researchers, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts have provided firsthand accounts of observing praying mantises attacking and killing hummingbirds. A 1949 anecdote in _The Auk _recounts a ruby-throated hummingbird being captured by a mantis, and there are several more eyewitness accounts on the Internet.

Thoroughly cleaning hummingbird feeders prevents the build-up of mold and other contaminants that could harm the birds or attract unwanted predators like mantises. And if mantises are spotted near feeding stations, softly relocating them to safer surroundings can minimize the potential conflict without harming either creature. Using covers that physically block access to the feeders can further deter mantises from reaching the birds, preventing attacks.

How They Catch Their Prey

Praying mantises have lightning-quick reflexes and forearms adorned with spikes that snag prey and pin it in place. They can also sit motionless, camouflaged among twigs or foliage, waiting for an unsuspecting insect to pass by.

They primarily hunt smaller insects like butterflies, bees, flies and spiders, but larger vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and snakes have also been recorded. In the past, a few people have observed praying mantises hunting and consuming hummingbirds.

Nyffeler’s new study, published this summer in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, unearthed 147 documented instances of bird capture by mantises on every continent except Antarctica. The findings are especially concerning given that 200 million Americans grow hummingbird-attracting flowers and maintain convenient hummingbird feeders, making the feathered creatures an easy target.

Unlike some other predatory garden insects, such as ladybugs or beetles, mantises don’t discriminate between pests and beneficials. And since they’re adept at ambushing and snagging, there isn’t much that a hummingbird can do to avoid being consumed.

How They Kill Their Prey

Observers have recorded images of praying mantiseses lurking under hummingbird feeders and snatching up the tiny birds. The mantiseses then eat the bird’s innards. “This is one of the most surprising results from our research,” says Nyffeler. “Mantids are known to eat live prey, but they have never been documented doing so on a regular basis.”

It may seem hard to believe that an insect can stalk, capture and kill a hummingbird. But it’s true.

The mantises have large front legs — also called forearms — that they use to grab their prey and hold it until it dies. They can even break the necks of some hummingbirds with a shake of their arms. Other prey includes frogs, lizards, snakes and cats. But hummingbirds are especially vulnerable because they can’t fight back. Their long, thin beaks aren’t a match for most predators.

What You Can Do

Praying mantises are a valuable garden companion. They control insect populations and eat weed seeds. They are also predators of harmful garden pests like bees and wasps. Using preventive measures can help keep praying mantises away from your hummingbird feeders. For example, hanging the feeder in a spot that is not in close proximity to tall plants or shrubs where mantises might lurk will deny them access to the nectar.

Though rare, it is possible for a large mantis to nab a hummingbird if the bird is in a vulnerable position while feeding or resting. According to a study in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 147 instances of mantises preying on small birds were recorded from 13 countries, with ruby-throated hummingbirds making up the majority of the victims. The mantis will typically eat the edible portions of the bird, while discarding the bones, feathers, and other inedible parts that they cannot digest. This can be a difficult and dangerous prey item for the tiny bird.

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