Hummingbirds, with their unmistakable beauty, tiny size, and quick movements, are one of the most interesting types of birds, and a favorite among birders, gardeners, and nature lovers alike. If you plan to feed these feathered friends in your yard, it’s important to learn as much as you can about hummingbirds, in order to provide them the best possible food and meet their other unusual needs.
1. Hummingbirds are all New World birds
These tiny birds are native to the Americas, from Canada and Alaska to Argentina and Chile, as well as all through Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Some scientists have theorized that hummingbirds may have evolved in Europe more than 40 million years ago, but there has been little proof to confirm the theory, and today these birds are only found wild in the New World.
2. All hummingbirds belong to the same bird family
There are more than 325 hummingbird species in the world, and they are all part of the Trochilidae bird family. Only eight hummingbird species regularly breed north of Mexico, and about a dozen other species are regular visitors or vagrants. Ecuador is home to the most hummingbird species, with more than 160 hummingbirds found in the country.
See also: A Guide to North American Hummingbirds
3. These tiny birds have humongous attitudes
Hummingbirds are some of the smallest bird species in the world, but many of them have great big attitudes. The rufous hummingbird is one of the most aggressive hummingbirds, and will dive at, chase, and even fight other hummingbirds. Hummingbirds will even chase off much larger birds, including crows and hawks, as they defend their nests and favorite feeding areas.
4. Hummingbirds have super long tongues to sip nectar
All hummers are nectivorous and get much of their nutrition and energy from sipping floral nectar. Their tongues can be as much as twice the length of their needle-like bills, and are grooved and fringed to lap up nectar more efficiently. Their tongues even split at the end like a zipper in order to draw up extra nectar, and hummingbirds will lick nectar 10-15 times per second.
See also: How Do Hummingbirds Eat?
5. Hundreds of flowers help feed hummingbirds
Because every flower a hummingbird visits has just a drop or two of nectar, these birds must visit may flowers throughout the day to get enough to eat. Hundreds of different flowers can nourish hummingbirds, though these birds often prefer flowers with long, thin tubes that store more nectar for more efficient feeding. Planting hummingbird-friendly flowers is a sure way to attract these birds.
6. Hummingbirds eat much more than just nectar
While hummingbirds are known for their love of sweet nectar, they don’t get all their nutrition from nectar alone. Hummers also eat a wide variety of small flying insects and gnats to get proper protein and different nutrients in their diet. They may also sip at woodpecker holes or broken fruits, will pluck spiders from webs, and even eat a small amount of pollen, ashes, and grit.
See also: 6 Ways to Help Hummingbirds Stay Healthy
7. Female hummingbirds work hard as single parents
While male hummingbirds put on flashy displays to attract females’ attention, once they’ve mated, the males have no further parental or familial duties. The female selects her own nest site, builds the nest by herself, lays the eggs, incubates them, and does all the care for her hungry hatchlings without any help from a male partner.
8. Two tiny eggs is a typical hummingbird brood
These little birds lay just two eggs per brood, though rare occasions of single eggs or triplets are sometimes reported. Hummingbird eggs are roughly the size of a coffee bean or small jelly bean, and they can be as much as 10 percent of the mother’s body weight when the eggs are laid. Hummingbird eggs are oval-shaped and plain white.
9. Hummingbirds have amazing hearts
Despite their tiny size, hummingbirds have powerful hearts that can beat up to 1,260 beats per minute in flight (a human’s typical resting heartbeat is 60-100 beats per minute). This rapid heart rate helps fuel hummingbirds’ high metabolism and give them the energy necessary for their stunning flight acrobatics. On cold nights, a hummingbird’s heart rate may slow to just 50-180 beats per minute.
10. Hummingbirds use torpor to survive the cold
When temperatures drop, hummingbirds can enter a semi-hibernating state called torpor. Not only will their heart rates slow, but their overall metabolism will drop to save energy and the birds will appear to be sleeping and immobile. Providing thick shrubbery and plentiful nectar can help hummingbirds survive chilly nights, and they will soon revive when the day warms up.
11. Hummingbirds cannot walk
Hummingbirds have tiny feet, which is one of their adaptations to keep their weight low and aid in aerodynamic flight. Because of this, hummers cannot walk, but they can scoot from side to side with a shuffling gait. Hummingbirds also use their feet to perch, and can stretch their legs and toes in order to preen with their feet.
12. These small birds still have more than 1,000 feathers
Despite their small size, hummingbirds still have 1,000-1,500 feathers, depending on the species. This is the fewest feathers of any birds in the world, and is another adaptation that helps reduce hummingbirds’ weight so they can fly more efficiently. Some of a hummingbird’s feathers, such as on the wings and tail, make buzzing or trilling noises as the birds fly.
13. A hummingbird’s throat isn’t really brightly colored
The jewel-toned gorget of male hummingbirds might be right red, pink, purple, blue, or orange, but it only looks that way because of the angle of the light, the wear on the feathers, and how the bird is seen. These feathers actually have no pigment at all, but only look brightly colored because of how the light reflects on the feather structure.
See also: Hummingbirds: The Crown Jewel of Color
14. Hummingbirds are attracted to many colors — not just red
Red is often associated with hummingbirds, but it isn’t the only color these beautiful birds love. Hummingbirds have very keen eyesight and any bright color – red, pink, purple, yellow, orange, white – will catch their attention and bring them to flowers for a sweet sip of nectar. Yet they have very little sense of smell, and most hummingbird-friendly flowers don’t have any aromas.
15. Hummingbirds flap their wings up to 200 times per second
To keep themselves aloft and practice all their aerial antics, hummingbirds flap their wings from 50-200 times per second. In level, straight line flight hummingbirds can reach up to 30 miles per hour, but when these birds dive from great heights, they can be going as fast as 60 miles per hour, with their wings speeding them along.
16. Hummingbirds are agile, acrobatic fliers
Hummingbirds are well known for their ability to hover, but they have plenty of other flight capabilities as well. These birds, with their slender wings and lightweight bodies, can also fly sideways, straight up, backwards, and may even do somersaults in the air. The pectoral muscles in a hummingbird’s chest may be up to 30 percent of its body weight to power this amazing flight.
17. Hummingbirds can have long lifespans
While most hummingbirds only live an average of 3-4 years, some older hummingbirds have been recorded by hummingbird banders and wildlife conservationists. One ruby-throated hummingbird was confirmed to live more than nine years, while an Allen’s hummingbird was banded and recorded with a lifespan of nearly six years.
18. Hummingbirds face many unusual predators
A hummingbird might not seem like a big bite or good meal for a predator, but these birds are hunted by many different animals. Large insects, like praying mantids and orb-weaver spiders, will hunt hummingbirds, as will some smaller birds of prey, like the American kestrel or small owls. Different fish, frogs, snakes, cats, and even roadrunners will also prey on hummingbirds.
19. Hummingbirds are an important part of the ecosystem
In addition to providing a sweet bite for some hungry predators, hummingbirds have other important roles in the ecosystem. All the insects hummingbirds eat help control bug populations, and as hummingbirds sip flowers, they transfer pollen from flower to flower to help fertilize plants and promote growth to keep meadows, forests, and flowerbeds lush and beautiful.
20. Hummingbirds are at risk from diseases
While these small birds may be fierce, energetic, and popular, they are still at risk from a range of diseases and infections. Dirty feeders and flowerbeds contaminated with mold, fungus, and pesticides are a grave threat to hummingbirds, especially since just a small amount of toxins can have a big impact on such tiny birds. Cleaning feeders well is essential to keep hummingbirds healthy.
21. Hummingbirds face many different threats
It isn’t just chemicals, molds, and predators that threaten hummingbirds. These birds are also at risk from habitat loss, particularly meadow and prairie areas that would naturally provide rich flowers for hungry hummers, as well as forests where hummingbirds nest. Window collisions, outdoor cats, climate change, and invasive plants are other threats that cause problems for hummingbirds.
The more we know about hummingbirds, the more we can appreciate what makes these tiny birds unique, and the better we will be able to protect and nurture them in our own yards.