Four Reasons Why There Is More to the Hummingbird Than Meets the Eye

This National Hummingbird Day, learn the buzz about these bizarre and beautiful birds

DSC_5489 (1).jpg
Hummingbirds play an important role in the pollination of many flowers, and they receive nectar meals in return. Shown here is a ruby-throated hummingbird visiting a flower. Jim Wood

Quick as a flash and iridescent like a gem, hummingbirds have caught people’s eye and attention throughout their range. There are over 300 species listed to date that come in a wide array of shapes and colors and are a welcome sight of many hobbyist birdwatchers and photographers. They also hold an outsized cultural significance throughout the Americas. As visually arresting as they are, it’s no wonder that hummingbirds have their own national holiday.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History appreciates these brilliant birds as well. The museum’s sprawling bird collection contains more than 19,000 hummingbird specimens that serve as a testament to some of nature’s tiniest fliers. While the largest hummingbirds in the collection dwarf smaller sparrows, the littlest specimens weigh less than a dime. These diminutive fliers hold the record of world’s tiniest bird and even give pygmy shrews a push for the title of smallest warm-blooded animal.

Celebrate National Hummingbird Day this Saturday by learning what sets these dazzling creatures apart from other birds.
Two specimens from the museum’s collection featuring the largest hummingbird species (giant hummingbird) and the smallest hummingbird species (bee hummingbird). Chris Milensky, Smithsonian Institution

They are the champions of the bird world

There is no official book of records in the bird world, but if there were, hummingbirds would occupy many pages. Some superlatives are more obvious than others – the world’s smallest bird is Cuba’s bee hummingbird – but a few may come as a surprise. For instance, the title of longest bird migration relative to body length goes to the Rufous hummingbird, at 3,900 miles or 78.4 million body lengths.

Other records that hummingbirds boast include the largest beak-to-body ratio (belonging to the impressive sword-billed hummingbird), fastest heartbeat, greatest brain-to-body mass ratio, and the greatest range of feather pigment of all bird families.

They exhibit especially skillful flight

Hummingbirds are known for their ability to zip, dart, and hover in the air. Though other birds possess impressive flight skills, none demonstrate aerial agility to the same degree. A few adept fliers in the bird world can hover, but none can hover for as long as hummingbirds.

Also, these airborne acrobats can not only fly forward like other birds, but can fly sideways, backward, and directly upwards like a drone. This peculiar flight has caught the attention of scientists, who have found that hummingbird flight patterns more closely resemble that of insects than other birds.

Each year, ruby-throated hummingbirds travel hundreds of miles from their wintering grounds in Central America to breed in the eastern United States. To cover these vast distances, the birds beat their wings around 53 times per second. Jim Wood

They have extreme energy demands

With flight speeds up to 50 miles per hour and a heart rate of up to 1,200 beats per minute, it’s no surprise that hummingbirds have one of the highest metabolic rates relative to their size on Earth. That means they are big eaters, needing to consume at least half their body weight in nectar and bugs per day. If humans boasted the same metabolism, the average human would need to consume over 150,000 calories per day.

Though these fiery energy demands allow for impressive speed and agility, there is a catch. Hummingbirds must feed approximately every 15 minutes, so they are always within hours of starving to death. Yet at the same time, hummingbirds can sleep and migrate without issue. For this to be possible, the birds enter a hibernation-like state called torpor every night to survive the snooze and nearly double their weight in fat to prepare for long treks.

They have weird tongues

Hummingbirds possess some bizarre tongues to lap up their lavish meals of nectar. The tongue is forked like a snake’s tongue, but each edge is frilled toward the end. Also, the forks fold inward creating two tiny tubes – not unlike a mosquito’s proboscis.

For a long time, scientists thought that this shape meant that hummingbird tongues worked like a straw. However, in 2015 researchers took a closer look at feasting hummingbirds and found something else entirely. It turns out that hummingbird tongues act more like tiny pumps to draw nectar from the flower.

This ruby-throated hummingbird is obtaining a nectar meal from a flower, using its tongue like a pump. Jim Wood

Though fast and flashy, hummingbirds are impressive for reasons beyond what one can see as they flit by. These little birds are mighty and mystifying in a variety of ways, and if they aren’t deserving of their own holiday, I don’t know what animal would be!

Related stories:
Seven Bizarre Moths to Celebrate National Moth Week
Real Bats Are Superheroes Too
Eight of Nature’s Wildest Mating Rituals
Scientists Describe New Bird Species 10 Years After First Reported Sighting
Landmark Study Shares Smithsonian Bird DNA Collected Over Three Decades
Study Finds Polygamy Helps Male Acorn Woodpeckers Thrive