Interesting Facts About Hummingbirds
There are several excellent reference books about the hummingbirds of the Americas. Some are rather difficult reading, such as technical ornithological studies. Greenwalt’s Hummingbirds while concerned with technical topics such as coloration and iridescence, feather structure and development, and eyesight and vision is an interesting exception for such technical literature. Non-ornithologists will be able to appreciate the vast amount of information presented. Pettingill’s Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, while a great introduction to serious bird study, only concerns itself with a relatively small amount of information specifically devoted to hummingbirds.
Dan True’s Hummingbirds of North America has proven to be an invaluable source of recent research and information about our favorite family of birds. Much of the advice we offer our customers on how to attract more hummers, the do’s and don’ts of feeding these magnificent creatures, and, pretty much anything one would want to know about feeding, attracting, and identifying hummers can be found in this volume. It is highly recommended.
When it comes to studying the natural history of our hummingbirds, in depth, we prefer Paul Johnsgard’s The Hummingbirds of North America. Johnsgard’s examination of the life and habits of hummingbirds is probably the most thorough and comprehensive, and is very readable. This volume consists of two major parts. The first part covers the comparative biology of hummingbirds (which deals essentially with classification, distribution, and general attributes; evolution and speciation; comparative anatomy and physiology; comparative ecology; comparative behavior: and comparative reproductive biology). The second part is concerned with the natural history of North America’s twenty-three hummingbird species. Each section of part two gives the reader a very detailed and complete description of each species. Typically, the areas covered here include other known names, range, list of subspecies, measurements, weights, physical descriptions, identification (in the field and in the hand), habitats, movements, foraging behavior and floral ecology, breeding biology, and evolutionary and ecological relationships.
There are wonderful, full-page color plates illustrating the birds foraging in their favorite flowers by the artist James McClelland. And lastly, there are six appendixes that are also very informative. They are origins of names, identification keys, synopsis of species, synoptic identification guide, identification and index for the illustrations, and hummingbird-adapted plants of North America. Much of the information for this article was gleaned from the Johnsgard work.
Hummingbirds, found only in the Western Hemisphere, lay claim to many unique or extraordinary characteristics:
- They include the smallest of warm-blooded vertebrates, and have the greatest relative energy output of any warm-blooded animal.
- They are the largest nonpasserine family of birds, and the second largest family of Western Hemisphere birds in number of living species.
- The smaller species have the most rapid wingbeat of all birds (reportedly to 200 per second during courtship, and reliably to 80 per second in forward flight, and are among the fastest fliers of small birds (50 —60 kilometers per hours in forward flight to 95 kh in dives).
- The ratio of their heart size to their body size is the largest of all warm-blooded animals, and their heartbeat rate reaches 1,260 beats per minute (second only to some shrews).
- They have the relatively largest breast muscles of all birds (up to 30% of total weight), and are the only birds whose upstroke provides as much power as the downstroke.
- Their plumage is among the most densely distributed of all birds, and the feather structure is among the most specialized; but they have the fewest total feathers of all birds (often less than 1000).
- Their brain size is among the relatively largest of all birds (up to at least 4.2% of total body weight).
- They have a unique flight mechanism, capable of prolonged hovering and rapid backward flight
- They are the only birds that regularly become torpid at night, with a drop in body temperature of as much as 19 degrees C; however, their normal body temperature is among the highest (40 degrees C) of all birds.
- Individual hummingbirds often consume more than half their total body weight in food and may drink up to eight times their weight in water and nectar each day.
- Actual number of hummingbird species exceeds 330, and has been speculated at, perhaps, as many as 370.
- Hummingbirds occupy special habitat niches from sea level to over 14,000 feet in the Andes Mountains in South America. The country with the greatest diversity of species is Ecuador, followed by Columbia.
- Inch for inch, hummingbirds are arguably the most colorful birds on earth
- Males play virtually no role in the reproductive process beyond fertilization.
- Most species have limited vocal abilities, very few have true songs. Most of the identifiable sounds are created through feather vibrations.
- Many hummingbird species have co-evolved with particular flowering plants and their bill size and shape have developed to take advantage of their ability to feed on, and pollinate, particularly shaped flowers while hovering.
- Where ranges overlap, some species may hybridize. Documentation exists demonstrating that in some species albinism sometimes occurs.
- A human, metabolizing energy at the rate of a hummingbird, would have to consume roughly double his/her weight in food such as meat every 24 hours, or about 45 kilograms of pure glucose, and his/her body temperature would rise to more than 400 degrees C.