Hummingbirds – Mesmerizing Jewels of the Sky

Right before I started by birding “career,” I got interested in photography. Sometime in my second year of high school I bought my first camera, a used Argus C-3. Really old school! This camera was a low-priced rangefinder camera mass-produced in the United States from 1939 to 1966. With over 3 million units sold, it was one of the most popular cameras in history! The C3 was referred to by photographers as “The Brick.”

It wasn’t long before I attempted to photograph birds and one of the first birds I went for seemed like an easy start. I had a hummingbird feeder outside of our living room window in Palo Alto and figured it would hover there and click – easy shot, right? Well not exactly. Being a novice (and a teenager), I mistakenly thought that a 300th of a second exposure would be fast enough to capture these little beauties like a frozen moment in time.

I took lots of pictures and off I went to my darkroom (yes, a darkroom!) to develop and print the photos. I’m sure you’ve already guessed what they looked like. A tiny bird inside a blur of wings. I learned that you needed a camera with at least a 1,000th or 2,000th of a second shutter speed to really stop the hummingbird’s wings in flight. Hummingbird wing speed varies depending on the species; the smaller the hummingbird, the faster its wing beat is. The only hummingbird that lives in the eastern United States, the Ruby-throated hummingbird, has wing beats of around 50 times a second. A Rufous hummingbird’s wings beat as fast as 52 to 62 wing beats per second. Now count “one Mississippi” and try to imagine 50 wing beats. That’s a blur!

These tiny birds take their name from the humming noise they make flapping their wings and delight even the most experienced birders with their brilliant colors and unique flight. Hummers are the only bird that can hover and even fly backwards and, unlike most birds, they cannot walk or hop. That’s because they have evolved smaller feet to be lighter and hence more efficient flyers. Hummingbirds have the fewest number of feathers of any bird species in the world which also keeps their weight to a minimum. Flying speed isn’t the only thing going fast in these birds either. Their heart rate is more than 1,200 beats per minute. By comparison, a human’s average rate is between 60-100 beats per minute. Naturally, the tiniest of birds lays the tiniest of eggs. A Hummingbird egg is smaller than a jelly bean!

Keeping their speed up is no easy task. A hummingbird must consume about half its weight in sugar every day and on average feeds five to eight times per hour, licking the nectar with their fringed tongues at a rate of 10 to 15 licks per second. That is fast!

As if all that wasn’t amazing enough, considering their miniscule size, their migration is equally astounding. A Ruby-throated hummingbird flies 500 miles nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico during spring and fall migration. These birds have a forward flight speed of 30 miles per hour and a dive speed of up to 60 miles per hour. Even when at rest hummingbirds take an average of 250 breaths per minute and despite their small size, with an average weight of less than a nickel, they are one of the most aggressive bird species. That becomes obvious at a feeder and near its territory.

I was recently standing just a few feet from a friend’s Hummingbird feeder; our dazzling visitor wasn’t fazed one bit. Despite their diminutive size hummingbirds are aggressive and seemingly fearless. They will attack much larger birds such as jays, crows and even hawks that come near their territory. Click here to watch a live hummingbird feeder cam in Texas. I admit it’s hard to stop watching and my cat will back me up on that.

How can these birds keep up such a demanding lifestyle? They have a secret. Hummingbirds are one of the few groups of birds that are known to go into a very deep sleep state know as torpor where their metabolic functions slow to a minimum and they can lower their body temperature. A kind of avian suspended animation. Hummingbirds can go into torpor any night of the year if temperature and food conditions make it essential to survival. They enter this state to counter their high metabolic demands and the fact that their feathers are poor insulation. So, they “check-out” when they’re unable to maintain their normal 105º F body temperatures.

Hummingbirds surprisingly are found only in the Americas which is home to 365 species, with 15 species living in the United States. But, unsurprisingly, many of these fascinating birds are on the verge of disappearing forever. There are currently more than 25 hummingbird species listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered.

There is something uniquely magical about these iridescent little birds that keep us entranced. They lead a very challenging lifestyle and you can help them with their relentless search for food by putting out a hummingbird feeder and planting the right plants such as Bee balm, Cardinal flower, Trumpet creeper, Coral honeysuckle and Columbine. In return they will give you one of the best displays in the bird world!

Ross A. FeldnerRCC Board Member

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss Feldner is the lead, with Bob Musil, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program. Ross is a life-long birder and photographer who is the editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a frequent birding spot for Rachel Carson who first learned about the health effects of DDT at the laboratory there. He is also the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD.

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