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The Flight (and Fight) of Hummingbirds

A dazzling jewel zooms by, floating mid-air using wings beating 70 times each second. She stops next to a trumpet-shaped flower, which fits her elongated beak like a custom-made glove. These co-evolved creatures, the bird and the plant, work together to ensure the existence of each other. But this lock-and-key maneuver is only one of the marvelous features that have made the hummingbird perhaps the most unique bird on our planet.

The smallest bird in existence, hummingbirds take in sensory information in a very different way than humans do. This leads to an experience we can only describe as living in slow-motion, a trait shared by squirrels and flies. In fact, everything about the hummingbird seems to exist in an alternative high-speed reality. Their movements are agile, flighty, and elegant, yet faster than we can comprehend without advanced technology. Their hearts beat over a thousand times per minute, compared to a human’s average of 70. Some species of hummingbird are able to withstand extremely low levels of oxygen, enabling them to live in the mountains. These petite athletes are a scientific wonder.

Found only the Americas, hummingbirds come in over 300 different species. Only 17 of these are found in North America. Many of these wonders dot the Andes, but thrive anywhere from deserts to rainforests. Regardless of where they live, they face constant competition from other hummingbirds– over both food and mates.

Small and mighty, these birds are built to thrive off of nectar, the sugary substance found in the depths of a flower. With their extended beaks, they dive into the petals. Instead of using a sucking motion, these birds use a highly effective method using their split tongue. The process is still not fully understood and is being actively researched. Regardless, a nectar fill-up will only last these fast-metabolizers around twenty minutes.

Because of the vast amounts of nectar they need, and the relatively small amount they extract from each flower, hummingbirds often face competition over access to flowers. Using their highly evolved beaks as weapons, they display a dazzling ballet which ends with the chasing off of the losing bird. It can then only hope to find another, less defended, flower.

A similar dance is performed between male birds. For hours, male humming birds perch, singing their fast-beating hearts away. Instead of each bird trying to sing his own song, groups of males chirp in a kind of harmony, responding to the others and allowing each’s voice to be heard individually. A male will visit another’s perch, challenging it to a duel. Each perform a dance, hovering back and forth in the air and occasionally clicking their beaks together. The winner takes the loser’s spot, and will hopefully be visited then by a female, to whom he performs his now perfected ritual.

The parenting job is taken completely by the female, who crafts a nest from tiny branches and spider silk for glue. She lays one to three eggs, and sits on them for up to two weeks. Once they hatch, she will provide them with food until they learn to join the world of flight and fight.

After a hard day burning up so many calories, hummingbirds have a good night’s rest… but not by sleeping. Instead, they enter a hibernation-like state called torpor. This allows them to dramatically drop their heart rate and body temperature, conserving energy.

Hummingbirds face increasing threats of habitat loss and climate change. Deforestation clear-cuts the forests where these birds and many other creatures live. The use of this technique is among its highest rates in Central and South America, the hummingbird’s most dense habitat. Without adequate habitat and food source, populations dwindle. In addition, changing weather patterns disrupt the natural environment which acts as a clock for many animals, including hummingbirds. This disrupts migratory patterns, confusing birds and often leading to increased competition and diminished food availability. Due to these factors, about 15% of hummingbirds are vulnerable to extinction.

However, these backyard favorites have an advantage over other creatures. Due to their iridescence and lovely nature, many place creative hummingbird feeders in their yards, helping our friends cope with habitat and food source destruction. More scientists and researchers are beginning to study these creatures, which will aid in conservation efforts as well. There is hope for the future for our flighty little friends after all.

Edited by: Naomi D’Arbel, Daryn Dever, and Shreya Singireddy