Named after the sound they make as they fly, hummingbirds are as beautiful as they are fascinating. These birds capture our imagination perhaps like no other bird; those shimmering feathers constantly changing with the light, the almost absurd range of plumage colors, and of course the size. The most unique thing about hummingbirds, however, is their flight.
Their wings move unlike any other birds and are more akin to dragonflies as they rotate in a figure-eight formation. It is this that gives them their speed and agility, plus their ability to hover for long periods of time; and one other thing. Hummingbirds are the most maneuverable bird species on the planet, because they are also the only bird that can fly backwards.
Hummingbirds only live in the New World, the Americas, with a handful of species in North America and the rest residing in Central and South America. Most species of hummers are migratory, with some flying over 2,000 miles; an exception to this is Anna’s hummingbird who resides along the Pacific coast all year.
The most commonly sighted hummingbird in the US is the ruby-throated, whose range extends up to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario during breeding season and then makes an extraordinary journey south across the Gulf of Mexico for winter in the tropics.
A bird that can move its wings in such a fashion and at such a speed – around 50–80 beats per second during normal flight, over 200 beats per second when diving – needs a lot of energy. Darting back and forth and probing with their long slender bills, hummers love feeding on nectar from flowers. They are also voracious eaters of insects such as gnats, mosquitoes, ants, aphids, even wasps – so they are a great addition to your yard to help keep those pests down.
A hummingbird has to consume half its body weight every day to survive, and it does so by eating every 10 or 15 minutes, visiting around 1,000–2,000 flowers a day. If you have hummingbird feeders, make sure you keep that sweet liquid topped up all day.
Sword-bills and bees
Named after its most visible characteristic, the sword-billed hummingbird is the only known bird to have a bill longer than its body. It is too long to use for preening, so they must use their feet to scratch and do all the feather work. The bird itself, excluding the bill, is about 13 cm long – the rapier-like bill adds another 8-10cm on top of that. The bill is actually in proportion when the nestling hatches, but then grows faster than the rest of the creature it is attached to.
This excessive length of a bill is all down to their food – they evolved in a niche environment along the Andean chain from Venezuela to Bolivia where a certain type of passionflower grows, whose trumpet-shaped blooms trap juicy insects and nectar deep within.
The bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world; there’s a reason people thought it was a bee. This minute avian lives in Cuba, weighs no more than 2.5g, and is around 6 cm long. As with all hummingbirds, the females build the nests and raise the young. Using a few strands of cobweb, some bark shavings and some lichen, the tiny cup-shaped nest will hold no more than two eggs per clutch, no bigger than coffee beans.
The young birds must spend around 20 days under care of the mother bird as they grow, with the last 4 days spent practicing flight before the fragility of the nest gives way to the elements.
Third time lucky
The rarest hummingbird in the world is the Santa Marta sabrewing, a relatively large species at around 13 cm long. This glittering emerald green bird with a black face and white chest has occupied a position among the top ten on one of the world’s saddest lists, Re:wild’s Search for Lost Birds, a global effort to locate species that haven’t been seen for over ten years. As the name suggests, this hummingbird was first spotted on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in North Columbia, the world’s tallest coastal mountain that is home to a plethora of unique and never-seen-anywhere-else species.
At the beginning of the 20th century the bird was seen regularly enough to not consider it a concern; however, rapid and extensive ground-clearance for agriculture in the following decades meant the bird wasn’t seen after 1946 for a very long time, so much that everyone assumed it had gone extinct. But a mere 54 years later, one was spotted on the mountain at long last, and photos were taken to preserve the occasion in 2010.
But that sighting seemed to be its last hurrah – extensive surveys for the next decade revealed nothing more. Then, last year in 2022, a very lucky and utterly humbled birder working for a conservation organization stumbled unknowingly across a male sabrewing in full command of his vocal cords, singing away.
Yurgen Vega was not dumbfounded enough to forget his faculties, and promptly took some photos to verify his astonishing discovery. This couldn’t have come at a better time for the mountain region, as this third sighting is now considered leverage to help slow down the habitat loss that is occurring; only 15% of the mountain’s original forest remains intact. There could be brighter days ahead for this green beauty and all the other weird and wonderful species that inhabit the mountain.
With feathers that seem to be constructed of pure light, hummingbirds have been charming the world since they were first brought to its attention in the 19th century. Having a hummingbird feeder in your yard or on your balcony will provide some vital sustenance to these whirring bejewelled engines to help keep them flying high all day long.