Featured Creature: Hummingbird

Photo by Nancy Marshall

Which creature weighs less than a coin, travels hundreds of miles alone, and contributes to the reproduction of thousands of plants?


Photo by Nancy Marshall

I didn’t know how blessed I was to be seeing hummingbirds all around me until I researched this Featured Creature. As soon as I read that these graceful, speedy birds exist only in the Americas, I felt so lucky to be in this geographical region. I see hummingbirds on almost every hike I go on, but they’re a sight I never take for granted. Their ability to zoom past in less than the blink of an eye while flashing bright colors and singing songs, and as they perch on the skinniest, tallest branch, doesn’t cease to amaze me. For those of you in other continents, it’s well worth the trip to witness this beauty in action. 

Costa Hummingbird; Photo by Tania Roa

Fast and furious

Hummingbirds are the smallest migrating bird. Unlike other bird species, they don’t migrate in flocks – they prefer to complete their journeys solo. Their migratory routes take them across countries, from the United States to Mexico, but this long-distance flight doesn’t take them too long. They can cover 500 miles in 18 – 22 hours without any breaks! 

Migration routes coincide with flowering times of plants in the destination. Unfortunately, changing weather conditions alter the timeline of flowering seasons and this complicates the journeys and lives of hummingbirds. 

Anna’s Hummingbird; Photo by Tania Roa

Built for flight

The small size of hummingbirds plays to their advantage. Most species weigh less than a nickel, and this lightweight stature means there is less weight to carry during those cross-country flights. They are the only birds able to fly backwards, thanks to their flexible shoulder joints that allow their wings to rotate 180 degrees.

Hummingbirds don’t technically have legs – their feet are extremely close to their bodies. They can perch and move sideways on a branch, but they can’t walk or hop. Despite the limitations this provides on the ground, it reduces drag while in flight, making them even more aerodynamic. 

Their namesake comes from the humming noise their wings make from beating so fast. Average beats reach 60 to 80 flaps per second! To truly appreciate how fast they are, watch this hummingbird in slow motion: 

Snack time 

Hummingbirds lack a sense of smell, so the way they find food is through color. Some prefer certain colored flowers, such as orange or red, which is why many hummingbird feeders come in red containers. 

*It’s important to note that if you decide to feed hummingbirds, you should not add red dye to the sugar and water solution. The dye could harm birds. For more information on feeding hummingbirds, including how often to clean feeders, visit All About Birds.

Hummingbirds have a large hippocampus, a brain region dedicated to learning and spatial memory. This gives them the ability to remember the locations of feeders or preferred flowers years later. For this reason, it’s important to establish protected areas for wildflowers. Think about it: if you were returning to your favorite restaurant after a year, you wouldn’t want to find it closed down. Feeders are one way you can support hummingbirds on their journey, yet another, more natural, way is to plant a native wildflower garden. Hummingbirds rely on nectar as a source of energy, but they also eat tiny insects for protein. With a wildflower garden, you can provide hummingbirds with both of their favorite cuisines.

Hummingbirds have quite the appetite. They can consume double their body weight in one day! They have a high metabolism, as exemplified by their hearts that can beat anywhere between 500 and 1,300 times per minute (compare that to our measly 60 – 100 beats per minute). This adds to their high energy needs, so they tend to feed constantly throughout the day. 

When temperatures drop, and the flowering season fades away, hummingbirds do something most birds don’t – they hibernate. Their bodies enter into a state of torpor, making their hearts slow down to as few as 50 beats per minute (even lower than ours). They do this to conserve energy and survive cold temperatures, and while in this state they may appear dead. But fear not, they will soon ‘come back to life’ when the weather is warmer. 

*If you do encounter a hummingbird in hibernation, it’s best to leave them be. If you’re not sure whether the hummingbird is in hibernation or dead, call a local wildlife rehabilitator. 

Hummingbird in torpor; Photo: Mary Ann Jacobs

Paying back the flowers

You might be thinking, “Hummingbirds eat SO much! How can flowers keep up with those high nectar demands?” and you’re not wrong. Hummingbirds do require a lot of flowers to satisfy their nutritional needs, but this isn’t a one-way relationship. As hummingbirds fly flower to flower, they pollinate. Thousands of different plants rely on these pollinators for reproduction. Since these birds exist across a variety of habitats, from chilly grasslands to arid deserts, there are plants in nearly every ecosystem across the Americas that depend on this group of 350 species. 

Although hummingbirds have adapted to a wide range of microclimates and environments, habitat loss and climate change threaten their existence. To ensure that the relationships between hummingbird species and plants stay intact, we can plant native plants and restore the habitats hummingbirds rely on for nectar, insects, and nesting material. One plant on your windowsill, or one garden in your backyard, can make all the difference for a tired bird on a 500-mile journey, and that bird will show you the utmost appreciation by returning to feed next year. As these hungry yet tiny birds attempt to recreate their feasts from seasons ago, they demonstrate that memory is about more than recalling what has happened. It’s about cherishing the moments that matter most. 

Now it’s time for me to hibernate,