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Can Hummingbirds Dance?

They feed by thrusting their Bill and Tongue into the blossom of Trees, and so suck the sweet juice of Honey from them; and when he sucks he sits not, but bears up his Body with a hovering Motion of his Wings. ..“

- Philosophical Transactions, 1693

Hummingbirds and the plants they pollinate have an ancient and close relationship. Have you ever watched a hummer probe a flower for nectar and wondered how it is that the flower and the hummer it feeds are so well suited to each other? The bills of the hummingbirds find a perfect match in the shape of the flower of the plants where they feed.

In the western part of North America, about 130 different species of plants have developed features that favor foraging and pollination by hummingbirds. Add another 20 or more plant species from eastern North America, and you have at least 150 plants in North America alone that have what scientists call an “ornithophilous syndrome.”

Hummingbird plants produce vividly colored, usually red, odorless flowers in the daylight when the hummers are active. Their flowers hold plenty of nectar in broad tubes, presented in a horizontal or hanging position. The petals often curve backwards, offering little or no landing platforms for nectar-competing rival insects like bees or wasps. Their stamens and pistils project in such a way that they make contact with a feeding hummer here in Arizona, Chuparosa, Hedgehog cactus, honeysuckle, Scarlet Lobelia, Morning Glory, Ocotillo, Salvia, Coral Bean, Gilia, Columbine in the high mountains, Paintbrush, and Penstemon all qualify as plants that feed and are pollinated by hummingbirds.

A study done in Arizona’s White Mountains in 1979 by Brown and Kodric-Brown focused on nine species of hummingbird flowers that coexist. The flowers of these plants are alike in flower color, size and shape. Each plant differs in the placement of its stigma and anther, so that different parts of the pollinating hummer’s body transport the pollen. This works to decrease competition among the flowers, and allows them all to be successfully pollinated by the birds. They found one kind of cardinal flower that has no nectar, but by mimicking the more-abundant nectar producing flowers, it attracts hummers. Smart plant!

In 2003, a study in the Lesser Antilles looked at the interaction between a local hummer, the Purple-throated Carib, and their flowers, known as Heliconia or Lobster Claws. While it was not proven which came first, it did show that over time, the bills of the birds and the structure of the flowers adapted to each other. Douglas Altschuler of the California Institute of Technology and Christopher Clark of UC Berkeley said in a commentary on the paper, “Hummingbird and Heliconia engage in a co-evolutionary dance, with flower shape evolving in response hummingbird bills and bill shape evolving in response to flower shape. By offering nectars containing different amounts of energy, Heliconia species select for different body sizes” in the birds.

The hummers and those deep red flowers, energy for the hummers, reproduction for the flowers... A dance indeed!

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