Today, we’re going from one of the largest species to one of the smallest. Don’t be fooled by their size. These charming birds are quite powerful and can do things no other bird can do.

Bee hummingbird

Male Bee Hummingbirds have brightly colored feathers. He is nearly life-size in this picture. Photo copyright Allan Hopkins, taken in Matanzas, Cuba.

How small is small? The smallest, the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), is only 5 cm (2 in) long—about the size of your pinky finger—and weighs less than a penny. In fact the Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird on record. It lives primarily in Cuba.

There are about 325 species of hummingbirds, located throughout North and South America. North America is home to only ten of those species, and only one, the aptly named Ruby-throated Hummingbird, lives east of the Mississippi.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) typically winter in Central America and will cross the Gulf of Mexico, a 600-mile journey, in a single flight.

I just have to pause here for a moment. A bird the size of a ping-pong ball, that cannot glide on air currents, flies across a huge body of water without one pit stop. I can’t even do that on a road trip.

Violet Sabrewing

This male Violet Sabrewing’s (Campylopterus hemileucurus) lives in southern Mexico and Central America. His bill is perfectly suited to the type of flower he seeks. Photo copyright Bastian.

Eyes have it. Hummingbirds (the males anyway) are exquisitely iridescent. Their feathers have a reflective quality like dozens of tiny prisms. As beautiful as we humans think they are, it must not compare to how they see each other. Hummingbirds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, where the iridescent colors really glow.

Anna's Hummingbird

This looks like a male Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) to me. Without direct sunlight, they often look gray/green, but when the light hits those iridescent feathers, they are stunning! Photo copyright Ken Bondy.

It’s all in the hum. Hummingbirds can’t walk or hop like sparrows. They can’t glide on air currents like hawks. Instead they hover, which gives them the ability to reach flowers others can’t. With their powerful wings, they position themselves in mid-air over a flower or feeder. In order to do this, they have to continually beat their wings—anywhere between 50 to 200 times per second!

Most birds gain lift on the down stroke of the wing. Hummingbirds are able to gain lift on both strokes by twisting their wing bones to pivot instead of flap. Super slo-mo video shows that their wing patterns make little figure eights. That neat feature enables them to do something even more amazing. They can fly backward and sideways.

For this physically demanding job, their hearts beat up to 1,200 times per minute.

Sword-billed hummingbird

This guy is called is a Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera). I’ll leave you to figure out why. Photo copyright Michael Woodruff

Where do they get all that power? Nectar and some insects. According to the Citizen Science Blog at the Cornell Ornithology Lab, hummingbirds have to syphon twice their body weight in nectar every day. The sugar from the nectar goes directly from their blood into their muscles. It doesn’t need to be converted and it isn’t stored, as it is for most other vertebrates.

They seem to remember where every flower is in their territory and how long it will take to refill with nectar. If hummingbirds visit your yard, you are probably already aware of how aggressively they defend their turf, leading to spectacular chases and occasional beak jabs.


Other posts in Nature Calls: Bears

For more information on hummingbirds, visit Cornell’s Ornithology Lab and the Audubon Society.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

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