16 dazzling facts about hummingbirds

hummingbird
CC BY 2.0 Nortondefeis

These psychedelic pixies of the bird world are all magic and moxie.

There are a lot of magical creatures on this planet, but it’s really hard to outdo the hummingbird when it comes to enchantment. They are the nectar-fueled, jewel-hued fairies of the bird world – and they have the moxie to match. These teeny wee things display some of the most vivid colors in the animal kingdom and have prodigious talents unique to themselves – like, you know, they hover – all in a Lilliputian package that weighs as little as a paperclip. I’m not sure they could be anymore bewitching – but if you need convincing, start here.

1. They’re not called hummingbirds for nothing

While they could have been named purringbirds or whirringbirds, the fact remains that they create quite the buzz, befitting of their onomatopoetic name. A hummingbird beats its wings around 70 times per second in direct flight and over 200 times per second while diving.

HummingbirdFrancesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

2. They are aerial acrobats

Hummingbirds can fly up, down and all around – forwards, backwards and even upside down. They can beat their wings in a figure-eight pattern, which makes them the only vertebrates capable of sustained hovering. They can fly 30 mph, and exceed 45 mph during courtship dives.

3. They put their flying to good use

Hummingbirds are found only in the New World, from southeastern Alaska to southern Chile – and of the 340 species of hummingbirds, many of them migrate at least 500 miles every year. The rufous hummingbird migrates 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) from Mexico to Alaska every year; ruby-throated hummingbirds can fly 18 to 20 straight hours to get across the Gulf of Mexico.

4. And of course, they are tiny

Much of the enchantment of these spectacular birds is that they pack so much magic into such a small creature. And in fact, the bee hummingbird of Cuba (pictured below), is around two inches long and weighs in at under 2 grams, is the smallest bird in the world. Theoretically, 16 of them could be mailed first class using a single stamp.

Bee hummingbirdcharlesjsharp/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0

5. They are remarkably flamboyant

Those of us east of the Mississippi only get to enjoy the ruby-throated hummingbird, and in all, only 17 species regularly nest in The States – but in the tropics? The place is humming with them. And like other creatures who live in the lush habitats of South America, many of them are vividly candy-colored with all kinds of frippery to add pizzazz – as can be seen in many of the photos here.

HummingbirdFrancesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

6. The men are dandies

Purple cheek pompoms, exuberant crests, wildly burdensome-looking tails – along with some of the most beautiful colors known to nature, male hummingbirds come with all kinds of wild add-ons to woo the ladies. The tails of species like the long-tailed sylph (Aglaiocercus kingii) and the booted racket-tail (Ocreatus underwoodii) – who also sports some perfectly poofy pantaloons – are completely improbable. (Both pictured below.) Which is also the point; the males who can survive with such beautifully burdensome tails prove to the females how hearty they are and what splendid mates they would make.

Booted-rackettailJoseph C Boone/CC BY 2.0
Long-tailed sylphFrancesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

7. Their nests could be the work of fairies

Hummingbird nests are the tiny homes of the bird world, usually not exceeding the size of half a walnut shell. They are velvety little cups formed from moss, leaves and plant bits, woven together with spider silk. And into the nests, mama birds deposit one to three tiny eggs the size of small pearls.

Hummingbird eggsYerandy1990/CC BY 2.0

8. They have the quickest hearts in town

With heart rates exceeding 1,200 beats per minute, hummingbirds have the fastest beating hearts in the animal kingdom.

9. They are gluttons for nectar

To keep their exuberant metabolism fueled, these little guys and gals need a prodigious amount of food, mostly in the form of nectar. One study noted that a hummingbird of 3 grams can devour 43 grams of sugar water in a day; that’s 14 times its body weight. They also eat tree sap, as well as insects.

HummingbirdBill Bouton/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

10. Bill, please

One of the hummingbird’s hallmarks is its long crazy bill that is specialized to fit into tubular flowers to get the goods. Different species have differently shaped bills in accordance with the flowers they prefer. Some are dramatically curved, others are very long. In the case of the remarkable sword-billed hummingbird, pictured below, so long that they have to hold it upright in order to stay balanced when perching! In fact, it is the only species of bird with a bill longer than its body.

SWord-billedFrancesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

11. Their tongues would demolish a lollipop

Hummingbirds have a long, split tongue that they use to vacuum nectar from flowers; it is such a fast-working tongue that it can flick at a rate of up to 13 licks per second.

12. They never forget

Believe it or not, those wee heads hold a lot of brainpower! One study found that the hummingbird’s hippocampus is significantly larger, relative to telencephalic volume, than any bird examined to date. Why? Because of their extraordinary nectar lust, they visit hundreds of flowers each day. “In order to feed efficiently,” notes the researchers, “they must remember what flowers they have visited, the locations of high nectar-rewarding flowers and a host of additional spatial–temporal information. A combination of field and laboratory studies demonstrate that hummingbirds can remember the nectar quality and content of individual flowers , nectar-refilling rates, spatial location and distribution of flowers, avoid revisiting recently sampled flowers and rely on ‘episodic-like’ memory for daily foraging.”

Green violeteerFrancesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

13. They find walking passé

Have you ever seen a hummingbird walk or even hop? Probably not, since they don’t bother. Their feet are so small and their flying so adept that they have pretty much done away with using them for anything other than perching.

14. They have great eyes

While hummingbirds can’t smell very well, they can see a whole array of colors that we can not, thanks to their ability to process ultraviolet light.

Brazilian RubyFrancesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

15. They have built-in flying goggles

Hummingbirds are one of the lucky animals that come complete with a third set of eyelids. These “nictitating membranes” are like a translucent curtain that can be drawn to protect the eyes during flight. They'd be all set for Burning Man.

16. Their collective name is a “charm”

Just like we have flocks of sheep and packs of dogs and gaggles of geese, we have charms of hummingbirds. Because, of course – few creatures are as charming as a hummingbird, let alone a group of them!

Emerald bellied woodnymphFrancesco Veronesi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Epilogue: Amazingly, hummingbirds were almost rendered extinct in the 19th century thanks to the Victorian penchant for vibrant feathers and the fashionable collecting of specimens by nature connoisseurs. Thankfully we've come to recognize the folly in that, yet these most beautiful of birds, like so many of the planet's species, now face other risks. Namely, habitat loss and destruction. We can only hope that future generations will be able to admire hummingbirds and look back feeling grateful that 21st century humankind wised up before it was too late.

Sources: Defender of Wildlife, The Royal Society journal Biology Letters, Wired, The San Diego Zoo, The National Zoo.

Tags: Animals | Birds

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