Hummingbirds Can See Even MORE Colors Than Humans, According to Researchers

A new study reveals hummingbirds' large eyes see the world in a wider range of brilliant colors than people can even imagine.

costa's hummingbirdCourtesy Carla Ritter
Male Costa’s hummingbird

Hummingbirds are tiny marvels of nature, and they love the color red for a very good reason. Their eyes are tuned to the rosy hue because their retinas have a denser concentration of cones, which mute color shades like blue and heighten warmer shades like red and yellow.

Recent research shows that the birds’ large eyes pick up even more colors than human eyes. Hummingbirds’ retinas possess four types of cones, while humans only have three, which detect blue, green and red light. This fourth type of cone is sensitive to ultraviolet light, which human eyes cannot see.

A new study suggests that hummingbirds see the world in a range of brilliant colors that we can only dream of, writes Virginia Morell for National Geographic. When the UV hues blend with the ones that humans can perceive, new colors appear.

female allen's hummingbirdCourtesy Lisa Swanson
Female Allen’s hummingbird

This visual acuity may also appear in other birds, reptiles and fish. It likely helps them locate food, choose a mate and elude predators, according to the paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Other physical traits that make hummingbirds so amazing include sturdy tail feathers that act like rudders to make hairpin turns. They have long, thin bills and tongues that lick up to 13 times per second. The tongues act as pumps that contract to draw in nectar from tube-shaped flowers. Hummingbirds can also hover and fly backward, which allows them to fly easily from flower to flower.

So the next time you see a hummingbird, take a moment to imagine the spectacular colors it can see in nature.

Lori Vanover
Lori Vanover is the senior digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor's degree in agricultural and environmental communications from the University of Illinois. Lori is certified as a Wisconsin Extension Master Gardener and is also a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.