Interesting Facts About Hummingbirds
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Catherine's writing reflects her life-long love of nature. She advocates for sustainability and respect for all living things.
The one bird that holds the greatest fascination among backyard birdwatchers is the hummingbird. From the bird family Trochilidae, there are sixteen species in the U.S and about 340 known within the Western Hemisphere where they are only found. The majority live within the equatorial belt.
Going back to early civilizations, the hummingbird was held in high regard. In Native American folklore, the hummer was thought to bring light. In other tribes, it was the bringer of rain. Among the Aztecs, the belief was held that fierce warriors would morph into hummingbirds after death then fly to join Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. His name actually means "blue hummingbird."
Common Hummingbirds of Southern California
- Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) has a green back and rusty flanks.
- Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) is gray, white, and green. Females have black or dark green heads. The males have a ruby head and gorget.
- Costa's Hummingbird (Calypte costae) has a green back w/ grey flanks. Females have black chins and heads. The male has an amethyst head and throat.
- Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) has a green and rusty-red body; hence, the name rufous which means red. The male has a brilliant copper-orange throat.
In our garden, we commonly see Anna's Hummingbird with a grayish-white body and iridescent green accents. The male has an iridescent ruby face and throat. He is unmistakable when spotted at feeders.
The Rufous Hummingbird, a shorter, more aggressive species with a rusty brown head and coppery-orange throat is a frequent visitor, but it is the green-backed Allen's hummingbird with its dramatic acrobatics that brings the most entertainment. It is really something to witness his courtship flight: a high dive into a repetitive pendulum swing. The song sounds like the twang of a Jew's harp.
The black-chinned Costa's hummingbird, the smallest and rarest of our visitors, comes more frequently once winter has passed now that favorite desert plants are part of our urban xeriscape gardens. The male Costa has a stunning purple throat and chest, which radiates like an amethyst when the light is just right. Jewels of the garden, indeed!
Southern California Hummingbirds
Characteristics of Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds fall into the bird category of gnatcatchers. In addition to insects and spiders, their natural diet is made up of sap, pollen, and nectar. They benefit us in the garden by helping with pollination.
Hummers have bills that are long, curved, and tapered at the tip. This makes it easy for them to get nectar and pollen from tubular flowers and sap from holes made by other sapsuckers. They are primarily attracted to red, which is the reason many of us often artificially color the sugar solutions for the bird feeders. Since this isn't necessary, and red dyes could possibly harm the birds, it's best to choose clear solutions. An easy recipe is 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Hummers choose red flowers because bees are busy pollinating the yellow and orange blooms. The lack of bees means a sweeter, better quality nectar.
The hummingbird has a very fast metabolism and needs to feed every 10 min. or so. It consumes about 2/3 of its body weight every day. The bird's translucent tongue that can lick at the rate of 13 times per second!
Hummers can fly at 40 mph and can dive-bomb in attack mode at a speed of 60 mph. Its wings beat about 50 times per second as it hovers upright at flowers and feeders. Unlike other birds that get power from the downstroke by bending their wings at both the shoulder and the"elbow," hummers beat from the shoulders only and achieve greater maneuverability. It is capable of flying in all directions, including upside down.
Hummingbirds will stop and perch on branches of trees and shrubs, fences, and utility lines where they often let out a high-pitched squeaky chirp. They like to observe the safety of surroundings before feeding, so it's best to consider its preferences when hanging a feeder. Nearby shelter and dappled light are best. Too much window reflection can cause birds to fly into the glass and hurt themselves.
A hummer can live for up to 8 years and will remember the location of food sources for most of its life. This is a good thing for enthusiasts with backyard feeders! We all enjoy watching these delightful birds from our windows as they loudly buzz down to drink the nectar. My favorite feeder is the Perky-Pet. It has a built-in ant moat and is easy to dismantle and clean regularly. This is a must for the good welfare of these tiny, energetic birds. The moldy soot that quickly grows on sugary feeder ports can be toxic to them.
The nest will be made on a small branch or twig in a shrub. The nest has a cavity of 1 1/2" and is held together with spider webs. The nest is lined with soft downy plant material, and will hold one or two jelly-bean sized eggs laid on separate days. Once the eggs are laid, the mother will sit on them to keep them warm until ready to hatch. The incubation period is 2–-3 weeks. A female will have 2 or 3 broods per year.
Create a Natural Habitat
Hummingbirds are most likely to frequent those gardens which most resemble wild habitats and offer native plants and flowers for feeding and nesting. Hummers mate and nest during the first 6 months of the year. They should not exclusively live off the sugar nectar we provide. It is important that they get protein from insects and pollen from plants which is thought to be an immunity booster. In Southern California, hummers like to nest in native plants like Ceanothus, Manzanita, and Sambucus.
The following is a partial list of favorite food sources for this Western region that add carefree beauty to the garden. For other areas, check with the Audubon Society or your local native plant nursery. It is important that we sustain our native wildlife by providing the correct host plants. As an example, young hummers feed on the small white bell flowers of the manzanita. If it were to become unavailable, our hummingbirds would migrate to Mexico, and we would feel their absence. Make your backyard a welcoming place for our native flora and fauna. You will marvel at the adaptability of your plants and the rich diversity of life they attract. You'll want to grab that camera or your favorite sketchbook when those lovely hummers buzz by for a visit!
California Plants for Hummingbirds
red trumpet vine
Galvezia speciosa "boca rosa"
Channel Island snapdragon
Questions & Answers
Question: Is the feathered area that sometimes stands proud called the "chin"?
Answer: The bright feathered area on a male hummingbird's neck is called the gorget. Some female Anna's hummingbirds have a small one. Males are the showier and more colorful of the two sexes.
Question: How long does it take the hummingbird to learn to fly from the time it starts standing on its nest and flapping its wings?
Answer: A baby hummingbird will usually have its feathers by 2 weeks but isn't really ready to depart the nest for 3 weeks until it can strongly fly.
Question: How can you tell if a hummingbird is a male or female?
Answer: Male hummingbirds are more brightly colored. The pictures in my article are males.
© 2011 Catherine Tally
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 16, 2014:
Good morning, Dave. I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub and the images. One of the great joys of travel is experiencing the diversity of our natural world. It is a concern to me that bird/insect host plants/trees are being replaced by non-native species which have become more readily available around the globe. Thank you for stopping by and leaving the thoughtful comments. :)
Dave from Lancashire north west England on January 16, 2014:
Beautifully written, informative article, enhanced by great images. It is one of my sad regrets that humming birds do not occur here in the UK. Thanks to you I have been blessed with their company for a while.
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on February 24, 2013:
Hummingbirds are such a treat to have in our garden! The Anna's hummingbird that visits us is one of the longer-lived No. American varieties. I think most other hummers average 3-5 years if they learn survival skills when young. - Amazing!, considering their metabolic rate.
Thank you! It's a pleasure to see your thoughtful comments on 2 of my hubs today.
H C Palting from East Coast on February 23, 2013:
Hummingbirds are fascinating and beautiful creatures. I didn't know they could live up to 8 years. Thanks for sharing this information and the beautiful pictures.
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on June 25, 2012:
Hi Mr. Happy. I'm so glad that you enjoyed learning about hummingbirds. There are many varieties all over the world. Try a feeder in your yard and be patient. They should eventually show up just like they have at your friend's cottage. Thanks for dropping by and commenting! :)
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on June 24, 2012:
Your hummingbird feeder looks like one a good friend of mine has at his cottage, here in Northern Ontario. The birds which come to it are for sure some specie of hummingbirds because they have the same helicopter flying patterns and make that loud buzzing sound when they fly, like giant insects. I have yet to catch one in a photo. For some reason I kept thinking that huminbirds only live in hot climates ...
Very intersting piece of writing. I appreciate You sharing all this information. Thank You for putting this hub together.
All the best!
[email protected] on June 26, 2011:
Wow! Those are hungry squirrels. I'd suggest putting a pile of fruit&nut bird food out in a small pile nearby, so they fill up and leave your feeder alone. Good luck!
Cat on a soapbox :>)
Barbara on June 25, 2011:
I live in southeastern Massachusetts. This year I put out my hummingbird feeder and two pesky squirrels jump on it and tip it and lick up the nectar. I tried switching to a feeder with high plastic flowers (the other plastic flowers lay flat against the bottom piece). They ate through the feeder in less than a week and all the nectar has leaked out which they were hungryly licking it off the deck. I can't believe they are doing this. My feeder gets empty in one day. I guess I won't be able to feed the hummingbirds anymore as they very seldom get to eatanyway. What a bummer. I just love to watch them too!
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 27, 2011:
Miss Lil' Atlanta, I am really glad that you enjoyed my hub. Hummers are truly remarkable in both beauty and habit- no wonder so many people love them! I hope you can attract more to your area. Thank you for your nice comments :>)
Miss Lil' Atlanta from Atlanta, GA on April 26, 2011:
Hummingbirds really are some of the most interesting animals. I've always been fascinated by them. Where I live there really aren't many hummingbirds, but I've had the pleasure of seeing about 3 or 4 of them in my life time.
Really great hub again, cat on a soapbox. I'm so going to start following your hubs. :)
logic,commonsense on March 28, 2011:
I get one to stop by every once in awhile, but they never seem to stick around, even with some of their favorite plants around the house.
Kathi from Saugatuck Michigan on March 18, 2011:
We have the Ruby Throated hummer here in Michigan. He goes after my Hosta blooms the most. Fun, fun, fun to watch!
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 17, 2011:
Wow, thanks! I just love these beautiful winged gems so
much- they inspire me to write about them. I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub!
epigramman on March 17, 2011:
....well this is perhaps the most definitive hub on hummingbirds - and it's by far the most beautiful!!!!
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 14, 2011:
Crystolite: I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub. Thanks for reading.
Dirt Farmer: Isn't it great that hummers remember the location of food sources year after year? You should always have these energetic friends buzzing about your yard especially if you add more native host plants.
Jill Spencer from United States on March 14, 2011:
My family gets excited when we spot a hummingbird in the yard, too. Thanks in particular for the list. We're only growing three on it and will have to add more!
Emma from Houston TX on March 11, 2011:
Nice poem with colorful pics of the birds.
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 10, 2011:
Thanks, Genna. I always value your comments. I've never known a squirrel to pester a hummingbird feeder since they have no use for the nectar. Ants can be a problem; however, there are products like the Ant Guard, which acts like a moat which ants avoid crossing to get to the sugar. I hope you do get a feeder so you can enjoy watching these winged jewels!
Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on March 10, 2011:
How beautiful they are; I have been thinking about purchasing a feeder, but am not sure of how safe it would be given the squirrels (the neighborhood bullies) we have in abundance in the spring and summer months. These guys eat just about anything. Wonderful hub!
Click through all of our Hummingbird images in the gallery.
The hummingbird is small in size — usually only about 7.5 to 13 centimeters in length.
Native to the Americas, hummingbirds largely form the family called Trochilidae, which is also their scientific name. There are about 350 different known species of hummingbirds including the bee, anna, ruby-throated, and topaz. However, the list keeps on updating each year as variations are discovered.
The smallest of the hummingbird – which is the bee hummingbird – weighs just about 2 grams. Two species of these birds have now known to have gone extinct. They are also famous for their ability to fly backward.
The brain of a hummingbird accounts for 4.2% of its total weight, which makes it the biggest, to overall size, of any bird. To compare, human brains account for 2% of our total body weight.
This probably explains how hummingbirds can remember their migratory routes and every single flower they have ever visited. If that wasn’t impressive enough, they are also able to determine how long they need to wait before visiting flowers again for more nectar.
Birds are fantastic creatures, with such a great presence in every culture around the globe, and are one of the crucial elements of the equilibrium of all land-based ecosystems. They are an inspiration, and a living treasure of our planet.
10 Facts You Didn’t Know About Hummingbirds
We’ve had two hummingbird feeders on our deck for years and have come to enjoy watching and knowing about the 2 most common hummingbirds in our area: Anna’s and Costa’s. Recently, a Rufus or Rufous hummingbird showed up, a rare occasion for us.
10 Facts You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Hummingbirds
1. They are the smallest migrating bird. They don’t migrate in flocks like other species, and they typically travel alone for up to 500 miles at a time.
2. The name, hummingbird, comes from the humming noise their wings make as they beat so fast.
3. Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards.
4. Hummingbirds have no sense of smell. While they can’t sniff out feeders, they do have good color vision. Some birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird prefer orange or red flowers. Despite this, red dye should not be used in nectar as it could harm the birds. Instead, plant naturally red or orange flowers or use feeders that have red coloring in their structure.
5. The average weight of a hummingbird is less than a nickel.
6. Their tiny legs are only used for perching and moving sideways while perched. They can’t walk or hop.
7. Hummingbirds drink the nectar found in feeders by moving their tongue in and out about 13 times per second. They can consume up to double their body weight in a day.
8. The average number of eggs laid by female hummingbirds is only two. These eggs have been found in nests smaller than a half dollar and compare in size to a jellybean or a coffee bean. Some species, like the Black-chinned Hummingbird make their nests with plant down, spider silk, and other natural resources that can expand as their babies grow after hatching.
9. A flock of hummingbirds can be referred to as a bouquet, a glittering, a hover, a shimmer, or a tune.
10. There are over 330 species of hummingbirds in North and South America.
The Two Most Common species in the San Diego are:
Anna’s Hummingbird – typically found along the western coast of the U.S. These birds are easy to attract to backyards with nectar or by looking in spring blossoming trees and flowers.
Costa’s Hummingbird – the desert is the favored habitat for the small Costa’s Hummingbird. In Arizona and California deserts, this species nests during late winter and spring, and most then avoid the hot summer by migrating to coastal California and Baja. The thin, high-pitched whistle of the male is often heard over desert washes in early spring. Their diet: Mostly nectar and insects. Takes nectar from flowers, and will feed on tiny insects as well. Often visits desert natives such as agave, chuparosa, desert honeysuckle, and fairy-duster. Will also feed on sugar-water mixtures in hummingbird feeders.
Other Common Species in the US include:
Rufous Hummingbird – these birds are found along the western half of the U.S. ranging from Alaska all the way south to Mexico depending on the season and their migration. Their orange color can be spotted in flowers and at backyard feeders, but only for a short time as this bird is usually on the move. The rufous hummingbird has the longest migration of any hummingbird species. These hummers fly more than 3,000 miles from their nesting grounds in Alaska and Canada to their winter habitat in Mexico.
Calliope Hummingbird – there are bright magenta feathers on this little bird. They can be found across the western half of the U.S. into both Canada and Mexico. This is the smallest known bird in the U.S. with a weight similar to a ping pong ball.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird – found in the high mountain meadow areas, they are known for rose-magenta throats on the males.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird – these green and red birds are found across the eastern half of the U.S. and ranging from Canada to Mexico during migration. This species is attracted to hummingbird feeders or tubular flowers.
Black-chinned Hummingbird – these small birds are known for their green, purple, and black colors. They often perch on bare branches as they travel along the western coast in the U.S. down to Mexico.
More Fun Facts & Trivia About Hummingbirds:
- A hummingbird’s brilliant throat color is not caused by feather pigmentation, but rather by iridescence in the arrangement of the feathers. Light level, moisture, angle of viewing, wear and tear, and other factors all influence just how bright and colorful the throat may appear.
- Hummingbirds can be used to scoot sideways while they are perched. These birds have evolved smaller feet to be lighter for more efficient flying. They will use their feet for itching and preening, however.
- Hummingbirds have 1,000 to 1,500 feathers, the fewest number of feathers of any bird species in the world. Not only do they not need as many feathers because of their tiny size, but fewer feathers also keeps them more lightweight for easier flight.
- Roughly 25 to 30 percent of a hummingbird’s weight is in its pectoral muscles. These are the broad chest muscles principally responsible for flying.
- An average hummingbird’s heart rate is more than 1,200 beats per minute. In comparison, a human’s average heart rate is only 60 to 100 beats per minute at rest.
- Hummingbirds have no sense of smell but have very keen eyesight.
- Hummingbirds lay the smallest eggs of all birds. Their eggs measure less than 1/2 inch long but may represent as much as 10 percent of the mother’s weight at the time the eggs are laid. A hummingbird egg is smaller than a jelly bean!
- A hummingbird must consume approximately one-half of its weight in sugar daily, and the average hummingbird feeds five to eight times per hour. In addition to nectar, these birds also eat many small insects and spiders, and may also sip tree sap or juice from broken fruits.
- Hummingbirds do not suck nectar through their long bills, instead they lick it with fringed, forked tongues. Capillary action along the fringe of their tongue helps draw nectar up into their throats so they can swallow.
- A hummingbird can lick 10 to 15 times per second while feeding.
- Hummingbirds digest natural sucrose—the sugar found in floral nectar—in 20 minutes with 97 percent efficiency for converting the sugar into energy.
- There are more than 325 unique hummingbird species in the world. Only eight species regularly breed in the United States, though up to two dozen species may visit the country or be reported as regular vagrants. The rest of the hummingbirds are primarily tropical species and do not regularly migrate. They are found in Central and South America as well as throughout the Caribbean.
- Many hummingbird species, including Anna’s, Black-chinned, Allen’s, Costa’s, rufous, calliope, and broad-tailed hummingbirds, can breed together to create hybrid species. This is one factor that makes identifying hummingbirds very challenging.
- The calliope hummingbird is the smallest bird species in North America and measures just 3 inches long.
- The bee hummingbird is the smallest hummingbird species in the world and measures 2.25 inches long.
- The average ruby-throated hummingbird weighs just 3 grams. In comparison, a nickel weighs 4.5 grams. It would take more than 150 ruby-throated hummingbirds to weigh one pound.
- The bill of the aptly named sword-billed hummingbird, found in the Andes Mountains, can reach up to 4 inches long, and it can be so heavy that the birds may perch holding their bills straight up. These birds hold the record for the longest bill relative to their overall body size.
- A hummingbird’s maximum forward flight speed is 30 miles per hour. These birds can reach up to 60 miles per hour in a dive, and hummingbirds have many adaptations for unique flight.
- A hummingbird’s wings beat between 50 and 200 flaps per second depending on the direction of flight, the purpose of their flight, and the surrounding air conditions.
- The ruby-throated hummingbird flies 500 miles nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico during both its spring and fall migrations. You might have heard that these tiny birds “ride” on the back of other birds during migration. This is a myth—they fly this distance entirely on their own.
- The peak fall migration period for hummingbirds is from mid-July through August or early September, depending on the route and the exact species. Species that nest further north begin migration earlier.
- At rest, a hummingbird takes an average of 250 breaths per minute. Their breathing pace will increase when they are in flight.
- Depending on the species, habitat conditions, predators, and other threats to hummingbirds, the average lifespan of a wild hummingbird is three to 12 years.
- Despite their small size, hummingbirds are one of the most aggressive bird species. They will regularly attack jays, crows, and hawks that infringe on their territory. Backyard birders often find they have one dominant hummingbird that guards all the feeders, chasing intruders away.
9 Adorable Facts About Hummingbirds
For speed, performance, and impressing the ladies, you just can’t beat a hummingbird.
1. THEY HAVE MEGABRAINS .
A hummingbird’s brain makes up a whopping 4.2 percent of its weight proportionally, that’s the largest of any bird’s. (By comparison, our brains are 2 percent of our body weight.) Inside that big brain is a veritable encyclopedia of important information. Studies have shown that hummingbirds can remember every flower they’ve ever visited, including on migration routes. They can figure out how long to wait between visits so the flowers have time to generate more nectar. They can even recognize humans, and know which ones can be counted on to refill empty hummingbird feeders.
2. . AND POWERFUL PEEPERS.
Hummingbirds have terrific vision: They can see every color we can, and their eyes can process ultraviolet light, which means they can also see some colors we can’t.
On top of that, hummingbirds are among the many animals gifted with a third set of eyelids. These translucent flaps of skin known as nictitating membranes act like natural flight goggles, protecting the hummingbird’s eyes as the little bird zooms through the air.
3. THEIR EARS ARE PRETTY GOOD, TOO.
Hummingbirds have highly acute hearing—and some of them also have highly cute ears: many males in the violet-ear (Colibri) genus have absolutely ludicrous feathered ear floofs. Apparently the females dig them.
4. THEIR BEAKS ARE BUILT-IN WEAPONS.
Mating season can get a bit competitive for hummingbirds. And not just in the “aw, gee, I saw her first” kind of way. Hummingbird males get mean. After a little bobbing and weaving, territorial males use their needle-like beaks like little shivs and stab each other in the throat.
They also use their face-knives for another kind of killing: hunting. Nectar is their favorite food source, but it’s not the only one hummingbirds also eat small flying insects. When they approach a bug, they stretch their beaks wide. When the beak reaches its maximum stretch, it snaps shut like a hair clip, trapping the hapless insect inside.
5. AND THEIR TONGUES ARE FREAKY.
For many, many years, birders and scientists believed that hummingbirds used their tongues like itsy-bitsy straws to suck up nectar. Then, in 2011, researchers revealed the freaky truth: hummingbirds have forked tongues that are lined with fine hair-like extensions called lamellae. When the hummingbird starts drinking, the tongue’s forks opens, the lamellae unroll and curl around a drop of nectar. Then as the tongue is brought back into the mouth, the forks close and the lamellae trap the nectar. There’s video, but be warned: It’s kind of unsettling.
6. THEY HAVE A LOT OF FEATHERS.
A hummingbird packs more feathers per inch than any other bird, with the possible exception of the penguin. And even if the penguin does win on feather count, the hummingbird’s are far more festive. The bright feathers on their gorgets (sparkly throat patches) scatter light like soap bubbles, creating some of nature’s most spectacular colors.
But they’re not just for show. While courting females, male hummingbirds make loud sounds with their tail feathers. They climb high into the air, and then dive past the females at speeds reaching 65 feet a second. As they swoop, the wind flutters through their tail feathers, causing squeaky sounds that are allegedly a huge turn-on for female hummingbirds. Are we seeing a theme here?
7. Built for Performance
No other bird on Earth can stunt-fly like a hummingbird. They can fly forward or backward, hover, and even fly upside-down, and they do all of this so fast we can’t even see it—beating their wings between 70 and 200 times per second. This power, precision, and agility allows them to reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour while flying and 60 miles per hour while diving. Their mad flight skills have made them a subject of great scientific fascination and several weird experiments.
8. Feeding the Machine
All this action comes at a cost. Like marathon runners or teenagers, hummingbirds have super-fast metabolisms and need to eat constantly—about every 10 minutes. Estimates vary, but it’s believed that they generally eat two to three times their own body weight in bugs and nectar every day. As “It’s Okay to Be Smart" host Joe Hanson points out, that’s the human equivalent of an entire fridge full of food.
9. They Also Have Feet.
Hummingbird feet are definitely the least impressive part of this animal. Possibly any animal. Hummingbirds have evolved to be so good at flying that their feet have become kind of…dumb. Their feet are mostly used for perching and scratching. Contrary to popular misconception, hummingbirds can walk, but they’re really bad at it. But let’s be serious. With wings and beaks and ear floofs like these, who needs feet?
All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.