Hummingbird Facts

The hummingbird facts are fascinating. Hummingbirds can hover in midair with their wings a blur, and they're the only bird that can fly backwards. Some can go into a state of torpor very much like hibernation, conserving energy by turning their metabolism down.

Most hummingbirds are small and delicate, though one South American species reaches 8 inches long. Bee hummingbirds are the smallest living birds. As frail as they look, some hummingbirds fly hundreds of miles over water during their migration.

Hummingbird plumage

Humans treasure hummingbirds for the jewel-bright feathers of the males. The male Costa's hummingbird, found in the Southwest, wears a hood and long throat covering of vivid violet that shades into black. On the West Coast, male Anna's hummingbirds wear a rose-red crown and gorget, or throat patch, that can look like garnets in the shade. The Ruby-throated hummingbird nests east of the Mississippi. Its wings are black, but it is otherwise iridescent emerald-green above and soft gray below, with a ruby throat patch on the males that changes with the shifting light. Female hummingbirds are less vivid, but wear touches of color and iridescence.

In many hummingbird species, the vibrant colors are not bound inside the feather structure but are determined by prismlike cells set in the top layers of the plumage. Light rays that hit the feathers are split into different wavelengths, depending on the angles at which they strike. That is why a muted hummingbird may suddenly become ruby or emerald as it turns in the light, then just as suddenly wink out of sight and disappear into the background.

Hummingbird habits

Gardeners love hummingbirds because they will come close to drink tinted, sugared water from specialized glass feeders and for the way they hover in a spray of water.

In nature, they feed on flower nectar, inserting their narrow bills and long tongues into flat- or trumpet-shaped blooms to feed as they pollinate. Some also drink tree sap, and all can snatch flying insects out of the air to eat at once or to feed to their nestlings.

Hummingbird mating and nesting

Above the deserts and dry gardens of the Southwest, the male Costa's hummingbird courts the female with a swooping and diving flight accented with shrieks each time he nears her. A male Anna's hummingbird climbs and then dives toward a female at high speed, producing shrieks with his tail feathers as he nears the ground. The male ruby-throated hummingbird performs dive displays, progressing to rapid, horizontal arcs near a female if she responds.

In most species, female hummingbirds build cup-shaped nests, usually of lichen and similar materials bound with saliva and spider silk. In the nest, they deposit two small, white eggs, which they incubate for two weeks or more. Females raise their hatchlings alone, feeding them on regurgitated flower nectar, insects and spiders.

A Hummingbird myth

One version of a myth belonging to the Rumsien Ohlone of California tells how the hummingbird brought fire into the world after the great flood. He took it from the underground Badger People, who had hidden it under a deerskin. The brave hummingbird stole an ember, dragging it though a hole in the hide with his long, narrow beak and holding it close as he flew up out of the darkness. It burned him terribly, which is why he has a red throat, but this deed is why the people of the world have fire.

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