All About Hummingbirds
Discover hummingbird facts and some of the many reasons why these tiny fliers have birders talking.
By George Harrison, Contributing Editor
Birders are constantly thrilled by the amazing hummingbird facts of these friendly fliers.
Almost everything about hummingbirds is amazing. From their dazzling, iridescent colors to their needlelike bills and extraordinary flight, hummingbirds are among the most fascinating birds in the world.
There are as many as 339 species of hummingbirds, all in the Western Hemisphere, and the majority are located near the equator. Of the 19 that enter the U.S., most spend their time in the country's warmer regions. Only one—the ruby-throated—is found in the East.
From the 2-1/4-inch Cuban bee hummingbird to the giant hummingbird of the Andes, the most impressive behavior of these birds is their flight. Not only can they hover in midair while lapping nectar from a flower, but they can also fly backward, shift sideways and move straight up or down. Their unbelievable flying ability is made possible by rotating their shoulder joints, permitting them to turn their wings 360 degrees from both back and front.
Forward flight for hummers has been clocked as fast as 55 to 60 mph. The humming drone this creates during flight is what gave these birds their unique name.
Raising a Family
During mating season, hummingbirds are entertaining to watch. To impress the females watching from tree perches, males perform spectacular, often noisy, courtship flights that take them high into the sky. One male may mate with several females, who, without any help, build the nest, incubate the eggs and raise the young.
Those who have seen a hummingbird nest know how difficult they are to find. The female builds a nest the size of a quarter and camouflages it in a tree. Then she lays two tiny eggs, no bigger than navy beans.
When hummingbirds feed, they use their long, slender bills to probe flowers for nectar with their tubular tongues. When females feed their young, they use their long bills to deposit food directly into their nestlings' throats.
Male hummingbirds often establish feeding territories that overlap with their mates' nesting. They are very protective of their feeding grounds—flower beds or feeders—and chase other males and females away, allowing only their mates and offspring to feed.
People often complain that one male hummingbird monopolizes a sugar-water feeder, not allowing other hummingbirds to feed. One way to solve this problem is to hang another feeder around the other side of your house, out of sight of the first feeder. If the male can't see both feeders, he can only protect one.
All Work and No Play
Hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any animal in the world, with the possible exception of shrews. In order to survive even 1 day, hummingbirds must feed all day long. To conserve energy during cold weather, they put themselves in a dormant state called "torpor," in which their metabolism slows significantly.
Most people never see hummingbirds bathe. That's because their bathing behavior is also unlike other birds'. Sometimes they will bathe in a pool of water caught in a leaf, but it's more common for them to fly through a spray of water. Whether it's a garden hose or fountain, they fly through the water multiple times to get their feathers wet, and then preen them dry from a perch in a tree.
All hummingbirds that breed in the U.S. migrate between summer and wintering grounds. The ruby-throated, for example, travels from as far north as Canada, south across the 600-mile stretch of the Gulf of Mexico and into Central and South America for winter.
Even more remarkable is that parent birds leave the breeding grounds first, abandoning their chicks to mature and fatten up for their own long journeys. The youngsters are preprogrammed to know when to migrate and where to fly.
From birth to migration, it's no wonder so many people are captivated by these flying jewels. They are amazing!
Did You Know?
- Hummingbirds have about 1,500 feathers.
- While resting, a hummingbird takes 250 breaths per minute.
- A hummingbird's tongue is grooved on the sides, which helps it catch insects.
- Hummingbirds have weak feet and legs. They use them only for perching and preening.