What’s not to like about hummingbirds. These adorable jewel-like birds come to greet you around summertime. Even though tiny, they are a ball of energy and feisty, particularly when visiting and hovering over flowers in your backyard.
Hummingbirds are one of the smallest birds in the world. These birds are important pollinators found in North America and mainly in South America. Most of them avoid colder climates in North America by migrating thousands of miles away to Central America and Mexico. In early to mid-April, they move back to the north.
Beside their small size and long migration route, hummingbirds have additional features that make them special.
The tiny body size of hummingbirds, depending on the species, ranges 3-5 inches in length. The smallest species lays eggs as heavy as a regular paperclip. Females lay 1-2 broods each summer.
Male hummingbirds come in many breathtaking colors and beautiful iridescent feathers to attract females. This bright coloration is the result of light reflecting from the multilayer structures of their feathers (not from pigmentation). Unlike the charismatic males, the color of females is a more plain green or brown.
When flying, the saber-like wings of hummingbirds flap frequently.
How Do Hummingbirds Fly?
As the only bird in the world capable of continuously hovering for a long time, they fly forwards, backwards, side to side, and even upside down, by their unique flying mechanism. The hummingbird flying mechanism is similar to the one in insects, by rotating their wings to generate lift on the upstroke. Other birds generate lift by flapping their wings downward.
For a hummingbird, it requires an enormous amount of energy to hover and flap its wings more than 50 times per second. To fulfill this need, hummingbirds use energy from the most recently ingested sugar, so they always need to eat food.
A hummingbird is a voracious eater with fast metabolism. This bird usually eats a sugar intake around half of its body weight daily.
How Do Hummingbirds Eat?
Hummingbirds access their source of sugar or nectar, by extending their tongue inside the flower petals (longer than their bill). Originally, scientists thought that hummingbird used a mechanism similar to a straw to obtain the nectar. However, there was no evidence to prove it.
The tongue of hummingbirds divides into two grooves (running from the tip to mid-tongue) with the outer of the tongue edges curve inward. Based on a study, hummingbirds used their tongue to lick the nectar—similar to how a dog drinks from a bowl of water. A hummingbird can lick nectar close to 18 times in a second.
To watch hummingbirds hover and drink at the same time, watch this video below:
Other than nectar, hummingbirds eat insects for the source of proteins and minerals. Their flight ability allow them to gain a skill beneficial for them to access various types of insects. This skill allows them to easily pick off insects from trees and catch an oblivious prey mid-air. Unsurprisingly, their menu consists of a buffet of insects: ants, aphids, fruit flies, gnats, weevils, beetles, mites, and mosquitoes.
These birds use their good eyesight, instead of nose, to direct them to flowers and to search small insects on the trees.
What Do Hummingbirds See?
To fly fast and change direction mid-air, hummingbirds must rely on a good vision to find food. Unlike our eyes adapted for looking at distant objects in front of us, their eyes are useful for finding distant objects in a lateral (or side-to-side) visual field.Interestingly, these birds prefer to drink from red flowers. It is not because they particularly tune to this color, but rather the red flowers tend to be rich in nectar.
Birds can differentiate many colors: They even see colors invisible to us—more colors than we could ever dream of. This is because we only have three color cone types (blue, red, and yellow), whereas birds have an additional type, sensitive to ultraviolet wavelength.
Using three color cones, we see all colors in a rainbow. Each monochromatic color in the rainbow is a spectral color produced when a single wavelength of light stimulates a single color cone type or two cone types close to each other. The only nonspectral color we see is purple, a mixture of red light and blue/violet light.
However, based on a study, hummingbirds can see a variety of nonspectral colors: purple, ultraviolet+red, ultraviolet+green, and ultraviolet+yellow. What it means is these birds easily tell apart ultraviolet+green from pure green, whereas those colors will look similar to us.
For hummingbirds, this skill helps them find food, search for mates, and avoid predators. This type of vision is also common in other animals, such as fish and reptiles. It even existed in dinosaurs.
Even though hummingbirds have impressive adaptive features to their environment, currently they experience habitat loss and changes in the abundance of nectar plants along their migration route. To help these amazing birds, you can create a healthy environment on your backyard with few easy steps.
How to Help Hummingbirds
You can attract, feed and nourish hummingbirds in your backyard by using flowers, perches, insects, water, and hummingbird feeders. Below are some easy examples on how to create it:
Plant native flowering plants (particularly red and orange tubular flowers), vines, shrubs, and trees. You may also use flowers (such as petunias, garden phlox, and impatiens) in a hanging basket or window box.
PerchesCreate safe and hidden perches for hummingbirds to rest and sleep in your yard. For example, you can create a simple perch swing with wires and a dowel rod.
Plant some insect- and hummingbird-pollinated flowers (such as bee balms, coral honeysuckles, lobelias, lavender and salvias), and eliminate the use of pesticides in your yard.
To attract fruit flies, you may also put a container with a peeled overripe banana near your hummingbird feeder.
Provide water sources, such as birdbath fountains. These fountains will attract hummingbirds to have a quick bath in it.
Nectar feeders are an easy way to feed hungry hummingbirds. You may dissolve a bit of white sugar in water (25% sugar solution) to fulfil their dietary need. For the birds’ safety, it is important to boil the water first. After adding and dissolving the sugar, wait for the batch of hummingbird food to cool. And DO NOT add red food coloring.
Furthermore, it is vital you clean your hummingbird feeders regularly. The combination of heat and sugar-water creates a good environment for deadly mold to grow. This mold can have devastating effects on hummingbirds. The hotter the temperatures are, the more regularly you should clean your feeder.
If you are worried about ants getting into your feeder, we recommend buying hummingbird feeders with an ant moat. You can find these at your local wild bird stores. While they do cost a little more, they save you such trouble when it comes to ant. Even better, the ant moat can sometimes attract other small birds to your feeder such as thirsty gold finches. They’ll eat the bugs and drink the water.
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