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Hummingbirds are birds comprising the family Trochillidae. They are among the smallest of birds, and include the smallest extant bird species, the Bee Hummingbirds. They can hover in mid-air by rapidly flapping their wings 12-90 times per second (depending on the species). They can also fly backwards, and are the only group of birds able to do so. Their English name derives from the characteristic hum made by their rapid wing beats. They can fly at speeds exceeding 15 m/s (54 km/h, 34 mi/h).


Hummingbirds drink nectar, a sweet liquid inside flowers. Like bees, they are able to assess the amount of sugar in the nectar they eat; they reject flower types that produce nectar which is less than 10% sugar and prefer those whose sugar content is stronger. Nectar is a poor source of nutrients, so hummingbirds meet their needs for protein, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, etc. by preying on insects and spiders, especially when feeding young.

Most hummingbirds have bills that are long and straight or nearly so, but in some species the bill shape is adapted for specialized feeding. Thornbills have short, sharp bills adapted for feeding from flowers with short corollas and piercing the bases of longer ones. The Sicklebills' extremely decurved bills are adapted to extracting nectar from the curved corollas of flowers in the family Gesneriaceae. The bill of the Fiery-tailed Awlbill has an upturned tip, as in the Avocets. The male Tooth-billed Hummingbird has barracuda-like spikes at the tip of its long, straight bill.

The two halves of a hummingbird's bill have a pronounced overlap, with the lower half (mandible) fitting tightly inside the upper half (maxilla). When hummingbirds feed on nectar, the bill is usually only opened slightly, allowing the tongue to dart out and into the interior of flowers.

Like the similar nectar-feeding sunbirds and unlike other birds, hummingbirds drinkby using protrusible grooved or trough-like tongues.

Hummingbirds do not spend all day flying, as the energy cost would be prohibitive; the majority of their activity consists simply of sitting or perching. Hummingbirds feed in many small meals, consuming many small invertebrates and up to five times their own body weight in nectar each day. They spend an average of 10-15% of their time feeding and 75-80% sitting and digesting.

Co-evolution with ornithophilous flowers

Hummingbirds are specialized nectarivores (Stiles, 1981) and are tied to the ornithophilous flowers they feed upon. Some species, especially those with unusual bill shapes such as the Sword-billed Hummingbird and the sicklebills, are coevolved with a small number of flower species.

Many plants pollinated by hummingbirds produce flowers in shades of red, orange, and bright pink, though the birds will take nectar from flowers of many colors. Hummingbirds can see wavelengths into the near-ultraviolet, but their flowers do not reflect these wavelengths as many insect-pollinated flowers do. This narrow color spectrum may render hummingbird-pollinated flowers relatively inconspicuous to most insects, thereby reducing nectar robbing. Hummingbird-pollinated flowers also produce relatively weak nectar (averaging 25% sugars w/w) containing high concentrations of sucrose, whereas insect-pollinated flowers typically produce more concentrated nectars dominated by fructose and glucose.

Aerodynamics of flight

Hummingbird flight has been studied intensively from an aerodynamic perspective using wind tunnels and high-speed video cameras.

Writing in Nature, the biomechanist Douglas Warrick and coworkers studied the Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, in a wind tunnel using particle image velocimetry techniques and investigated the lift generated on the bird's upstroke and downstroke. They concluded that their subjects produced 75% of their weight support during the down-stroke and 25% during the up-stroke. Many earlier studies had assumed (implicitly or explicitly) that lift was generated equally during the two phases of the wingbeat cycle, as is the case of insects of a similar size. This finding shows that hummingbirds' hovering is similar to, but distinct from, that of hovering insects such as the hawk moths.

The Giant Hummingbird's wings beat at 8–10 beats per second, the wings of medium-sized hummingbirds beat about 20–25 beats per second and the smallest can reach 100 beats per second during courtship displays.


With the exception of insects, hummingbirds while in flight have the highest metabolism of all animals, a necessity in order to support the rapid beating of their wings. Their heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute, a rate once measured in a Blue-throated Hummingbird. They also consume more than their own weight in nectar each day, and to do so they must visit hundreds of flowers daily. Hummingbirds are continuously hours away from starving to death, and are able to store just enough energy to survive overnight.

Hummingbirds are capable of slowing down their metabolism at night, or any other time food is not readily available. They enter a hibernation-like state known as torpor. During torpor, the heart rate and rate of breathing are both slowed dramatically (the heart rate to roughly 50–180 beats per minute), reducing the need for food.

The dynamic range of metabolic rates in hummingbirds (Suarez and Gass 2002) requires a corresponding dynamic range in kidney function (Bakken et al. 2004). The glomerulus is a cluster of capillaries in the nephrons of the kidney which removes certain substances from the blood, like a filtration mechanism. The rate at which blood is processed is called the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). Most often these fluids are reabsorbed by the kidneys. During torpor, to prevent dehydration, the GFR slows, preserving necessities for the body such as glucose, water and salts. GFR also slows when a bird is undergoing water deprivation. The interruption of GFR is a survival and physiological mechanism unique to hummingbirds (Bakken et al. 2004).

Studies of hummingbirds' metabolisms are highly relevant to the question of how a migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbird can cross of the Gulf of Mexicomarker on a nonstop flight, as field observations suggest it does. This hummingbird, like other birds preparing to migrate, stores up fat to serve as fuel, thereby augmenting its weight by as much as 100 percent and hence increasing the bird's potential flying time.


Hummingbirds have surprisingly long lifespans for organisms with such rapid metabolisms. Though many die during their first year of life, especially in the vulnerable period between hatching and leaving the nest (fledging), those that survive may live a decade or more. Among the better known North American species, average lifespan is 3 to 5 years. By comparison, the smaller shrews, among the smallest of all mammals, seldom live more than 2 years.The longest recorded lifespan in the wild is that of a female Broad-tailed Hummingbird that was banded (ringed) as an adult at least one year old then recaptured 11 years later, making her at least 12 years old. Other longevity records for banded hummingbirds include an estimated minimum age of 10 years 1 month for a female Black-chinned similar in size to Broad-tailed, and at least 11 years 2 months for a much larger Buff-bellied Hummingbird.


Hummingbirds are found natively in the Americas, from southern Alaskamarker to Tierra del Fuegomarker, including the Caribbeanmarker. The majority of species occur in tropical and subtropical Central and South America, but several species also breed in temperate areas. Only the migratory Ruby-throated Hummingbird breeds in continental North America east of the Mississippi River and Great Lakesmarker. The Black-chinned Hummingbird, its close relative and another migrant, is the most widespread and common species in the western United Statesmarker, while the Rufous Hummingbird is the most widespread species in western Canadamarker.

Most hummingbirds of the U.S. and Canada migrate south in fall to spend the winter in northern Mexicomarker or Central America. A few southern South American species also move to the tropics in the southern winter. A few species are year-round residents in the warmer coastal and interior desert regions. Among these is Anna's Hummingbird, a common resident from southern California inland to southern Arizona and north to southwestern British Columbiamarker.

The Rufous Hummingbird is one of several species that breed in western North America and are wintering in increasing numbers in the southeastern United States, rather than in tropical Mexico. Thanks in part to artificial feeders and winter-blooming gardens, hummingbirds formerly considered doomed by faulty navigational instincts are surviving northern winters and even returning to the same gardens year after year. Individuals that survive winters in the north, however, may have altered internal navigation instincts that could be passed on to their offspring. The Rufous Hummingbird nests farther north than any other species and must tolerate temperatures below freezing on its breeding grounds. This cold hardiness enables it to survive temperatures well below freezing, provided that adequate shelter and feeders are available.


As far as is known, male hummingbirds do not take part in nesting. Most species build a cup-shaped nest on the branch of a tree or shrub, though a few tropical species normally attach their nests to leaves. The nest varies in size relative to species, from smaller than half of a walnut shell to several centimeters in diameter. In many hummingbird species, spider silk is used to bind the nest material together and secure the structure to its support. The unique properties of silk allow the nest to expand with the growing young. Two white eggs are laid which, despite being the smallest of all bird eggs, are in fact large relative to the hummingbird's adult size. Incubation lasts 12 to 19 days, depending on species, ambient temperature, and female attentiveness to the nest. Their mother feeds the nestlings on small arthropods and nectar by inserting her bill into the open mouth of a nestling and regurgitating the food into its crop.

Systematics and evolution

Hummingbird feather
Traditionally, hummingbirds are placed in the order Apodiformes, which also contains the swifts, though some taxonomists have separated them into their own order, Trochiliformes. Hummingbirds' wing bones are hollow and fragile, making fossilization difficult and leaving their evolutionary history poorly documented. Though scientists theorize that hummingbirds originated in South America, where there is the greatest species diversity, possible ancestors of extant hummingbirds may have lived in parts of Europe to what is southern Russiamarker today.

There are between 325 and 340 species of hummingbird, depending on taxonomic viewpoint, historically divided into two subfamilies, the hermits (subfamily Phaethornithinae, 34 species in six genera), and the typical hummingbirds (subfamily Trochilinae, all the others). However, recent phylogenetic analyses by McGuire et al. (2007) suggest that this division is slightly inaccurate, and that there are nine major clades of hummingbirds: the Topazes, the Hermits, the Mangoes, the Coquettes, the Brilliants, the Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas), the Mountain Gems, the Bees, and the Emeralds. The Topazes (Topaza pella and Florisuga mellivora) have the oldest split with the rest of the hummingbirds. The hummingbirds are the second most diverse bird family on earth (after the tyrant flycatchers).

Fossil hummingbirds are known from the Pleistocene of Brazilmarker and the Bahamasmarker—though neither has yet been scientifically described—and there are fossils and subfossils of a few extant species known; until recently, older fossils had not been securely identifiable as hummingbirds.

In 2004, Dr. Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Museummarker in Frankfurt am Mainmarker identified two 30-million-year-old hummingbird fossils and published his results in Nature. The fossils of this primitive hummingbird species, named Eurotrochilus inexpectatus ("unexpected European hummingbird"), had been sitting in a museum drawer in Stuttgartmarker; they had been unearthed in a clay pit at Wieslochmarker-Frauenweiler, south of Heidelbergmarker, Germanymarker and, because it was assumed that hummingbirds never occurred outside the Americas, were not recognized to be hummingbirds until Mayr took a closer look at them.

Fossils of birds not clearly assignable to either hummingbirds or a related, extinct family, the Jungornithidae, have been found at the Messel pitmarker and in the Caucasus, dating from 40–35 mya; this indicates that the split between these two lineages indeed occurred at that date. The areas where these early fossils have been found had a climate quite similar to the northern Caribbeanmarker or southernmost Chinamarker during that time. The biggest remaining mystery at the present time is what happened to hummingbirds in the roughly 25 million years between the primitive Eurotrochilus and the modern fossils. The astounding morphological adaptations, the decrease in size, and the dispersal to the Americas and extinction in Eurasia all occurred during this timespan. DNA-DNA hybridization results suggest that the main radiation of South American hummingbirds at least partly took place in the Miocene, some 12–13 mya, during the uplifting of the northern Andes.

Lists of species and genera

Feeders and artificial nectar

Hummingbirds will also take sugar water from artificial feeders. Such feeders allow people to observe and enjoy hummingbirds up close while providing the birds with a reliable source of energy, especially when flower blossoms are less abundant.

Hummingbirds will either hover or perch to feed; red feeders are preferred, but colored liquid is not necessary and may be hazardous to their health.
Hummingbird hovering to feed at a red feeder with yellow "flowers"

Only white granulated sugar is proven safe to use in hummingbird feeders. A ratio of 1 cup sugar to 4 cups water is a common recipe. Boiling and then cooling this mixture before use has been recommended to help deter the growth of bacteria and yeasts. Powdered sugars contain corn starch as an anti-caking agent; this additive can contribute to premature fermentation of the solution. Brown, turbinado, and "raw" sugars contain iron, which can be deadly to hummingbirds if consumed over long periods. Honey is made by bees from the nectar of flowers, but it contains sugars that are less palatable to hummingbirds and promotes the growth of microorganisms that may be dangerous to their health.

Red food dye is often added to homemade solutions. Commercial products sold as "instant nectar" or "hummingbird food" may also contain preservatives and/or artificial flavors as well as dyes. The long-term effects of these additives on hummingbirds have not been studied, but studies on laboratory animals indicate the potential to cause disease and premature mortality at high consumption rates. Although some commercial products contain small amounts of nutritional additives, hummingbirds obtain all necessary nutrients from the insects they eat. This renders the added nutrients unnecessary.

Other animals also visit hummingbird feeders. Bees, wasps, and ants are attracted to the sugar water and may crawl into the feeder, where they may become trapped and drown. Orioles, woodpeckers, bananaquits, and other larger animals are known to drink from hummingbird feeders, sometimes tipping them and draining the liquid. In the southwestern United States, two species of nectar-drinking bats (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae and Choeronycteris mexicana) visit hummingbird feeders to supplement their natural diet of nectar and pollen from saguaro cacti and agaves.

In myth and culture

Aztecs wore hummingbird talismans, the talismans being representations as well as actual hummingbird fetishes formed from parts of real hummingbirds: emblematic for their vigor, energy and propensity to do work along with their sharp beaks that mimic instruments of weaponry, bloodletting, penetration and intimacy. Hummingbird talismans were prized as drawing sexual potency, energy, vigor and skill at arms and warfare to the wearer.

See also


  1. Robert S. Ridgely and Paul G. Greenfield, "The Birds of Ecuador volume 2- Field Guide", Cornell University Press, 2001
  2. Clark and Dudley 2009. Flight costs of long, sexually selected tails in hummingbirds. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. Published online, Mar 2009.
  3. "Drinking Behavior of Mousebirds in the Namib Desert, Southern Africa "; Tom J. Cade and Lewis I. Greenwald; The Auk, V.83, No. 1, January, 1966 pdf
  4. Rodríguez-Gironés MA, Santamaría L (2004) Why Are So Many Bird Flowers Red? PLoS Biol 2(10): e350 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020350
  5. Altschuler, D. L. 2003. Flower Color, Hummingbird Pollination, and Habitat Irradiance in Four Neotropical Forests. Biotropica 35(3): 344–355.
  6. Nicolson, S. W., and P. A. Fleming. 2003. Nectar as food for birds: the physiological consequences of drinking dilute sugar solutions. Plant Syst. Evol. 238: 139–153 (2003) DOI 10.1007/s00606-003-0276-7
  7. Rayner, J.M.V. 1995. Dynamics of vortex wakes of flying and swimming vertebrates. J. Exp. Biol. 49:131–155.
  8. Warrick, D. R.; Tobalske, B.W. & Powers, D.R. (2005): Aerodynamics of the hovering hummingbird. Nature 435: 1094–1097 (HTML abstract)
  9. Skutch, Alexander F. & Singer, Arthur B. (1973): The Life of the Hummingbird. Crown Publishers, New York. ISBN 0-517-50572-X
  10. [Churchfield, Sara. The natural history of shrews. 1990, Christopher Helm, Ltd., London.]
  11. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory. Longevity Records AOU Numbers 3930 - 4920 2009-08-31. Last accessed 2009-09-27.
  12. Williamson, S. L. 2002. A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America (Peterson Field Guide Series). Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. ISBN 0-618-02496-4
  13. Bleiweiss, Robert; Kirsch, John A. W. & Matheus, Juan Carlos (1999): DNA-DNA hybridization evidence for subfamily structure among hummingbirds. Auk 111(1): 8–19.
  14. Hummingbird Nectar Recipe
  15. Arizona Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory Newsletter, April 2005
  16. Should I Add Red Dye to My Hummingbird Food?
  17. * Williamson, S. 2000. Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds. (Wild Birds Series) T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, New Jersey. ISBN 0-7938-3580-1
  18. The Firefly Forest: Tucson's Hummingbird Feeder Bats


Bakken, B. H., McWhorter, T. J., Tsahar, E., Martinez del Rio, C. (2004). Hummingbirds arrest their kidneys at night: diel variation in glomerular filtration rate in Selasphorus platycercus. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 207: 4383-4391.
  • del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (editors) (1999): Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-25-3
  • Gerwin, John A. & Zink, Robert M. (1998): Phylogenetic patterns in the Trochilidae. Auk 115(1): 105-118.
  • McGuire, J. A., Witt, C. C., Altshuler, D. L., and Remsen Jr., J. V. 2007. Phylogenetic systematics and biogography of hummingbirds: Bayesian and maximum likelihood analyses of partitioned data and selection of an appropriate partitioning strategy. Systematic Biology, 56: 837-856.
  • Meyer de Schauensee, Rodolphe (1970): A Guide to Birds of South America. Livingston, Wynnewood, PA.
  • Stiles, Gary. 1981. Geographical Aspects of Bird Flower Coevolution, with Particular Reference to Central America. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 68:323-351.

  • Suarez, R. K., Gass, C. L. (2002). Hummingbirds foraging and the relation between bioenergetics and behavior. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A. 133: 335-343.
  • Williamson, S. 2000. Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds. (Wild Birds Series) T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, New Jersey. ISBN 0-7938-3580-1
  • Williamson, S. L. 2002. A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America (Peterson Field Guide Series). Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. ISBN 0-618-02496-4


File:Eugenes-fulgens-001.jpg|Magnificent Hummingbird—Guadalupe, PanamaFile:Hummingbird.jpg|A male Costa's Hummingbird, showing its plumage to good effectFile:L30greenviolet.JPG|Green Violet-earFile:Selasphorus rufus on Saltspring Island.jpg|A hovering Rufous Hummingbird on Saltspring IslandmarkerFile:Hummingbird and his flower11.jpg|The size of a hummingbirdFile:Humming_ggp.jpg|hummingbird among flowersFile:IMG_42371h.jpg|hummingbird among flowersFile:IMG_5355hum_flow.jpg|hummingbird among flowersFile:Hummingbirds fighting.jpg|two males fightingFile:Humming_flowers.jpg|Hummingbird among CrocosmiaFile:Hummingbird Calypte anna in ggp 15n.jpg|Calypte anna perchedFile:Hummingbird in ggp 23.JPG|GroomingFile:Hummingbird is attacking a much bigger bird.jpg|Anna's Hummingbird attacking a much larger Song SparrowFile:Hummingbird and a hiney bee.jpg|Hummingbird and honey bee to compare the sizesFile:Hummingbird- among and Crocosmia.jpg|Hummingbird at CrocosmiaFile:Hummingbird_Texas.jpg |A Texas HummingbirdFile:Chlorostilbon portmanni, Gould.jpg|Short-tailed Emerald, by John GouldFile:2008-1227 k10 Hummingbird.JPG|Hummingbird feeding in winterFile:HummingBirdHookNest.JPG|Hummingbird nesting on a rubber-covered hook

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