Creature Feature: Hummingbirds

“Good things come in small packages.” This saying perfectly describes our flying, flower-loving friends, the hummingbirds. All hummingbirds belong to a family of birds called the Trochilidae family, which has 349 different species. Some of these species are the smallest birds in the world, with the tiniest being the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae). The Bee Hummingbird is only 2.25 inches long (about as long as your pinkie), and it weighs less than 2 grams, or less than the weight of two paper clips [1]! The largest hummingbirds are Giant Hummingbirds (Patagona gigas), which are about 8 inches long and can weigh over 23 grams [2].


But don’t let the small size fool you—hummingbirds are full of energy and power! A hummingbird’s heart can beat up to 1,260 times per minute, and a hummingbird’s wings beat between 10 and 80 times per second [3]. Imagine trying to flap your arms up and down 80 times in a single second! So where do they get the energy to beat their hearts and wings so fast? Hummingbirds eat a LOT relative to their size. They eat about half their total body weight in food every day, which is 3.14 to 7.6 calories a day [3]. If humans tried to eat as much as hummingbirds, we’d be eating around 155,000 calories per day, which is 50 times the amount humans typically eat in a day [4]. What exactly are these hummingbirds chowing down on? Nectar, a sugary liquid produced by flowers, makes up 90% of a hummingbird’s daily diet (lots of sugar to power their constant activity!) with the last 10% consisting of various insects for protein.

A hummingbird getting his daily fill of nectar [Source].

Because hummingbirds depend so heavily on nectar for their survival, they are important pollinators for flowers. A pollinator helps move pollen from the male parts of one flower to the female parts of another flower, so that seeds can be formed and grow into new plants. Without important pollinators like the hummingbird, plants would have a hard time creating more young plants. When hummingbirds feed on nectar, they often don’t land on the plant, but rather stay hovering in the air as they sip on its nectar. Feeding for these birds is a nonstop workout! However, hovering is not the only flight trick they are capable of: hummingbirds are quite the little aviators as they can fly up, down, forwards, backwards, side-to-side, and even upside down! Due to their quick-beating wings and flight maneuverability, some people originally thought the hummingbird may be a cross between a bird and an insect and referred to them as “flybirds” [6].

Flying hummingbirds drinking nectar from flowers and feeders.

The hummingbird’s superior flying skills also make these birds fearless in competition. If a hummingbird sees another bird in its territory, it will boldly challenge the intruder, knowing that it can outmaneuver any of its opponents in flight. Hummingbirds are aggressive enough to challenge birds much larger than themselves, such as jays, crows, or even hawks [3]! Who knew such a small creature could pack that much punch?

Watching these birds fly around is already quite the show, but what adds to the spectacle is their colorful plumage, or feathers. Hummingbirds come in a wide variety of bright colors, especially male hummingbirds. Males use their vibrant, flashy plumage to attract females. If you’d like to see these birds in action and you live in North or South America (the only continents hummingbirds inhabit), you can attract them right to your backyard! Check out this link to learn what you can do to bring hummingbirds to your yard for a visit.


Despite their small size, hummingbirds are a wonder to behold. From their fantastic flight patterns to their bright jewel colors, hummingbirds are both fun to watch as well as important pollinators of our garden flowers and wild plants. Now that’s a lot of good coming from some pretty small packages!


Nicole W. Korzeniecki is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She studies how social insects work together with the bacteria in their gut to better organize themselves in large groups.


References:

  1. BirdNote (podcast). “Get to Know the Bee Hummingbird, the World’s Smallest Bird.” Audubon, 14 May 2019. http://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-bee-hummingbird-worlds-smallest-bird
  2. Heynen, I., Boesman, P. F. D., & Kirwan, G. M. (2020). Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.giahum1.01
  3. “Hummingbirds of Chamizal National Memorial.” National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior, Chamizal National Memorial. https://www.nps.gov/cham/learn/nature/upload/Hummingbirds-of-Chamizal_english.pdf
  4. San Diego Zoo (2020). Hummingbird. San Diego Zoo Global Animals and Plants. https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/hummingbird
  5. Winkler, D. W., Billerman, S. M., & Lovette, I. J. (2020). Hummingbirds (Trochilidae), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, B. K. Keeney, P. G. Rodewald, and T. S. Schulenberg, editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.trochi1.01
  6. Campbell, V. (2020). “Summertime in the United States of Hummingbirds.” All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/summertime-in-the-united-states-of-hummingbirds/

Source for main image

Edited by Jessica Schaefer

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alli Templeton says:

    Stunning little birds and a fascinating post about them. I learned so much. It’s incredible how much they eat compared to their body size, but then with all the energy they expend they can get away with all the sugary nectar they crave. Thanks for the window into the life of a little bird I’ve always admired. 🙂

    Like

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