They say that dynamite comes in small packages, and in the case of the hummingbird, they are right. This species of birds are the smallest in the world, with sizes ranging from 2 1/4 inches long and weighing two grams (the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba) to 8 1/2 inches long and weighing 20 grams (the Giant Hummingbird from the Peruvian Andes, which is larger than some many other bird species.) They are also very beautiful and delicate-looking, with colors ranging from blue and green (the most common) to brown and even violet. And when the sun gleams on their feathers, the colors take on the most beautiful gemstone hues.
But for all their delicate beauty and tiny size, hummingbirds are actually one of the most durable species in the animal kingdom. There are around 330 known species of hummingbird that thrive in very divers-and many times, brutal- environments from the southern tip of South America to Alaska and the lowest forests of Brazil to the highest parts of the Andes Mountains (with an elevation close to three miles above sea level). They only live in North and South America. No one knows exactly why they only live in the America’s, but it has been suggested that their migratory pattern may be disrupted by the East-West Barriers such as the Sahara Desert and the Meditereanian Sea, Whereas there patterns are helped along by the North-South Andes, Appalachian, and Rocky Mountain Ranges.
A Hummingbird’s heart is about 20% of it’s entire body mass, which is more than any other known creature. On Average, a hummingbird’s heart beats between 500 beats per minute (while perching) and 1,200 beats per minute (while chasing other birds), but it can slow it’s heart beat down to 30 beats per minute during a time of scarce food or cold, until conditions improve.
As everyone who has seen a hummingbird fly can tell you, Their wings beat faster than the human eye can see. The actual speed varies from bird to bird, but even the smallest hummingbirds can beat their wings 80 times per second, and can-for short bursts-beat their wings as fast as 100 beats per second. 70% of a hummingbird’s wing is made up of handlike bones that have fused joints that give strength to the wing. The upper wing bone is capable of rotating 180 degrees in it’s socket, which gives hummingbirds the ability to hover and change direction almost instantly.
All of this power has to be fueled by the tiny amounts of nectar that can be found in many species of flowers found all over the New World. Most hummingbirds take in over 1 1/2 times their body weight in nectar daily using their long, slender beak and tongue. The tongue is forked at the end and is shaped like a trowel for easiest lapping in such a tiny space. These tongues can lap up nectar around 30 times per second.
Because of the need to eat as often as every few minutes, each hummingbird only has a small area that they live in, fighting with others over areas rich in floral life. The hummingbirds’ fight is non violent. They fight by challenging each other and showing off. They spin, dive, and fly backward to show off their dominance. It can look like a dance. However, there are a few species of hummingbird that have adapted to crossing large, flat areas where there is little food. The best example of this is the Ruby-throated hummingbird, which migrates from southern Mexico to The eastern parts of the United States and Canada. To prepare for this journey, they pig out on insects and nectar, putting on fat and doubling their size in just a week’s time. After this feast, they fly across the Gulf of Mexico, flying nonstop for 20 hours and a distance of 500 miles before they get to land and eat again.
These tiny birds are only durable in life, though. In death, their remains rarely fossilize, making it difficult to trace the millions of years of evolution that gave us the modern hummingbird. However, there was an astonishing discovery recently found in a layer of soil that dates to one million years ago. This discovery was a jumble of bird remains that included one which may be an ancestor of the hummingbird. The specimens found had many of the features of the modern hummingbird, including the long, slender bills, and the rounded upper wing joints that may have allowed these prehistoric birds to hover.
What was really surprising about the find was that it was made in southern Germany, Which is very far from modern hummingbird territory and is more surprising still, because the hummingbird is not found in Europe. This find can mean one of two different things, either that hummingbirds once existed outside of the Americas, or that this find was not a hummingbird, but one of the many species of birds that evolved hummingbird-like characteristics over the billions of years that life has existed on Earth.
It is believed that the true hummingbirds evolved in the Amazon basin, where diverse life, habitats, and competition allowed hummingbirds the perfect opportunity to evolve their flying and feeding abilities to compete for their share of the New World’s floral life. Even today, this area is where the highest concentration of hummingbirds exists. Out of the 330 known species, only 16 of them live in-or travel to-North America to breed. Only 9 species of hummingbird are ever seen in Canada, 23 visit the United States, 60 species are seen in Mexico, and the numbers keep climbing as you move through central America to South America. Venezuela is home to 100 species of hummingbird, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are home to about 150, 140, and 130 species respectively. The number drops again in the southern parts of South America, where the people of Argentina have only seen 25 species, and Chileans only have seen 8 species of hummingbird. You’d think that since the Chile is closer than Canada to the center of hummingbird territory, that hummingbirds would be more prolific.
The durability and beauty of these delicate-looking birds has captivated everyone who has ever taken a closer look at them, and with good reason too.
National geographic article “Flights of Fancy”
Wikipedia’s page on the giant hummingbird