Two male hummingbirds feeding.

A Seriously Cool Bird

It can fly backwards and upside down. Its metabolism is insane. It will remember your backyard months after feeding there. Here’s why the hummingbird—the tiny mascot of our Spring 2020 color collection—is blowing our minds.


We knew we loved hummingbirds for their gorgeous colors, which inspired our Spring Eye Quartets and Lip Chics. But to learn more about these mysterious creatures we turned to Ross Hawkins, founder of The Hummingbird Society. Based in Sedona, Arizona—where hummingbirds abound—Hawkins, a former stockbroker, began learning about the tiny birds when he was looking to get better at photographing them. Finding very little intel, he launched the non-profit 24 years ago to educate about hummingbirds and protect those at risk of extinction. He gamely answered a bunch of our questions.

What makes hummingbirds so unique?
Their uniqueness starts with the mode of wing movement—more forward-and-back, not up-and-down. This is a very inefficient way to fly, but it permits them to hover and even fly backwards and upside down briefly. This inefficiency demands enormous food intake to supply the energy needed. Their metabolism is startling: If an average-sized human had a hummingbird’s metabolism, his diet would be 180 pounds of potatoes or 252 Big Macs.

A male White-necked Jacobin. Photo courtesy of Ross Hawkins.

Do they ever stop moving?
They must slow their metabolism at night, since they aren’t taking in any food. Their energy needs are lower, but they still have to make it through the night. They can reduce their metabolic needs by lowering their body temperature. In extreme cases, they can lower it to perhaps 70° F from a normal of 106°. In the high Andes, where nighttime temperatures regularly drop below freezing, they enter this extreme slowed-down state (called torpor) virtually every night.

Is it our imagination or do they kind of like humans?
Their behavior with humans sets them apart from most other birds. Rather than fleeing at the sight of one, they often fly up close for a closer look. Their survival depends on constantly finding new food sources: “Maybe this big entity in my garden is a new flower? I’d better investigate it!”

And they have great memories, right?
Do they ever! It has been documented many times that their sense of location is extraordinary. For example, suppose you live in Los Angeles and have a feeder out, and a migrating Rufous Hummingbird coming through California in the spring finds it. Then she continues on her way to, say, British Columbia. Makes babies, fattens up, and makes the trip back to Mexico, this time over the Rockies. Round trip that’s 6,000 miles, stopping at flowers and feeders the whole way. Next spring, odds are good she will stop at your feeder again. We know this by attaching a numbered band to her leg and looking for the band the next year. Out of the hundreds of places she stopped to feed, she found your feeder a year later—without Google Maps!

A male Costa’s hummingbird showing off his colorful gorget. Photo courtesy of Ross Hawkins.

So are only some hummingbirds migratory? How does that work when they’re so tiny?
Hummingbirds are found only in the Americas. Most species are found along the equator and in the tropics generally, where the temperature doesn’t change that much—so they have food available all year round. That means they have no need to migrate. But those who venture to distant areas where flowers bloom for the breeding season find they must leave as summer ends. As a result, most U.S. species are migratory, but in contrast most of the total 366 species in North and South America are not.

What do they eat?
Hummingbirds need fuel for their energy-demanding mode of flight. Their digestive system has evolved to quickly process simple sugars like sucrose and fructose, which they can find in the blossoms of certain flowers and human-supplied feeders. Hummers like blossoms with a large quantity of nectar that has a high percentage (over 20%) of sugar. Salvias and penstemons are commonly planted in gardens for this purpose, but the list of attractive plants is long and varied. To build tissue, hummingbirds also need protein, which they obtain by feeding on insects and tiny spiders, often catching flying insects in mid-air. Young chicks in the nest need more protein to facilitate their growth, all provided by Mama. Papa plays only an initial 30-second role in the nesting process. Female hummingbirds are single moms.

What does a hummingbird nest look like? How small are the babies?
A nest is tiny, perhaps 1.5 to 2.0 inches across and one inch deep. Since the mother flies into the nest, it is never a cavity but is completely open. To reduce the nest’s visibility to possible predators, she often decorates the outside with bits of moss, lichen, leaves, or whatever nearby material makes the nest blend in. She attaches these bits with spider silk, which is remarkably strong and sticky.

The eggs (always 2) and the chicks are small, the eggs being only 0.5-0.6 inches in length. When you see a newly hatched chick, it’s hard to imagine that its bill is going to grow from an initial tenth of an inch to a full inch or more in just three weeks. The chicks grow rapidly, and when they are ready to leave the nest they are actually somewhat larger than their mother. They shed this excess weight the next week as their mother teaches them about feeding.

Nest of a Broad-tailed hummingbird in Colorado with a one-day-old chick. Photo courtesy of Ross Hawkins.

Hummingbirds come in so many colors! Why is that?
While other birds exhibit the brilliant coloration we call iridescence, hummingbirds seem to have the most refined and varied colors. It is now understood that the intense colors of a hummingbird feather arise from a regular array of tiny air bubbles in the melanin of the feather, with the layers of bubbles uniformly spaced; the layers give rise to light interference, in which the multiple layers cancel out all wavelengths (colors) of light but one. Different spacing of these bubble layers produces different colors. Male hummers know this and can control this through changing their position vis-à-vis the sun; it is an important element of their courtship—and antagonistic—displays.

"Many humans have personal experiences with hummingbirds that convince them the spirit of a deceased friend or relative is coming to visit them."

What do hummingbirds symbolize in different indigenous cultures?
Perhaps the most frequently shared concept is that the hummingbirds are messengers between worlds, e.g., between living persons and the spirits of the deceased, or between humans and divine entities. And it isn’t just indigenous cultures; many humans have personal experiences with hummingbirds that convince them the spirit of a deceased friend or relative is coming to visit them.

Are some hummingbirds endangered? What are their greatest threats?
Many hummingbirds are endangered! Of the 366 species, currently 40 fall into this category; of these, 10 are critically endangered. Threats vary with species, but probably the largest single factor is habitat loss, and human activity is usually the prime reason for this: logging, clearing for agriculture, etc.

Two unidentified females.

What’s the best way to attract hummingbirds to your backyard?
The easiest and most important step is to supply them with nectar sources, either flowers rich in nectar or feeders with an appropriate ratio of water to sugar (4 to 1, normally), using ordinary table sugar (usually cane). Beyond this, hummers need and will seek out a place to bathe, because eating nectar is a sticky business. They prefer shallow, moving water or a fine mist/spray. Lastly, providing a nesting material (unprocessed cotton is best) can encourage a female to use that material in constructing her nest near you.

Do you have a favorite hummingbird? Which one and why?
Oh, I have several favorites. I love the Annas and the Rufous for their ability to endure cold temperatures and snow. And the Broad-billed for its sheer beauty. Then there are the species with amazing tails: the Marvelous Spatuletail, the Jamaican Streamertail, even the little Booted Racquet-tail. And the Horned Sun-gem, which seems to have two tiny, rainbow-colored feather groupings on its head that look like ears (they aren’t). And I love all the endangered species for their sheer tenacity in surviving.

 

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