Hummingbird Myths and Facts
By Jon Friedman
Hummingbirds, like bats and owls, have been surrounded with myths, legends, misinformation and simply untrue “facts”. Many of these old wives tales and fallacies concerning hummingbirds have been circulating for so many years that many folks who have heard them come to accept these myths as truths. We’ll examine some of the most popular myths and untangle some of the truths to set the record straight regarding hummingbirds.
Tongues – One of the most commonly heard myths is that hummingbirds have tongues that, like straws, can suck up their liquid nectar. This is absolutely false. Hummingbirds have unique tongues that are about twice as long as their bills and are basically forked, or V-shaped. The interior of the V-shaped tongue is covered with minute fringes of lamellae, which are hairlike appendages on the tongue.
University of Connecticut researchers Alejandro Rico-Guevara and Margaret Rubega used high-speed cameras to record 30 hummingbirds of 10 different species as they drank nectar from transparent feeders. What they observed was that when the tongue touches the liquid nectar, the two V-shaped tips are closed and fringing lamellae are flattened against it. Then the tips separate and lamellae spread out from each fork of the tongue. When the hummingbird pulls its tongue out, the tips come back together and the lamellae roll in, trapping the liquid. From that point capillary action takes over, moving the nectar into the throat.
“We demonstrate that the hummingbird tongue does not function like a pair of tiny, static tubes drawing up floral nectar via capillary action,” write Rubega and Rico-Guevara. “Instead, we show that the tongue tip is a dynamic liquid-trapping device that changes configuration and shape dramatically as it moves in and out of the fluid.”
Each of the hummingbird species has co-evolved with particular nectar producing flowers and the length and curvature of each species bills insures that species’ survival – as only that particular species can usurp nectar from that particular flower. This co-evolving with particular flowers allows only that species access to that plant’s energy-giving nectar. Each and every hummingbird species has unique bills for foraging certain flowers that other species cannot use. This, in effect, helps insure the survival of all hummingbird species.
Hummingbirds exist on a nectar only diet. This is another widespread myth. The outer edges of the tongue are fringed to help catch the many minute insects they consume daily – from the air while flying, in flowers, and in/on vegetation that they investigate for this purpose. While nectar provides only the instant, quick energy their high metabolic rate demands, it should not be confused with food. All the nutritional needs of their diets – vitamins, minerals, amino acids, animal proteins and fats and oils – are derived from the insects they consume. It is estimated they easily eat more than their body weight daily in insects, particularly in migration. Spiders are their favorite food source, especially baby spiders. It is thought that spiders comprise between 60% and 80% of their daily solid food intake.
Another food source is tree sap. Not all hummers lick tree sap, but some do. The sap itself is high in certain nutrients but also traps insects that happen to be attracted to it and get stuck in it. Some hummer species have been observed both eating the sap and the insects the sap attracts.
Parents teach fledglings to fly. This is another common myth. Flying is instinctual for hummingbirds and other avian species. They don’t have to be taught. When hummingbird nestlings grow into fledglings they hop on the rim of the nest and beat their wings in preparation of the first flight. This exercising of their flight muscles is critically important as those muscles are the largest and most used in their entire body. Their pectoral muscles account for about a third of their entire body weight. They do this for two or three days, hovering a small distance above the nest, landing, and repeating this sequence many times over. Finally, by the third day, they are ready to take their first flight. First flights are very short. With each flight they venture further from the nest. They prove to be very adept flyers right away. However, landing and perching take more practice to perfect. Hummingbirds have very tiny feet and legs, which are only used for perching. They do not walk. Once perched, if a hummer wants to turn around on its perch it always rises up by hovering above it perch, turning in mid-air and alighting in the desired position on the perch. Hummers don’t use their feet for walking or turning. They do scratch with their tiny feet, however.
Another common myth is that hummingbirds mate in mid-air. This also is not true. Males looking to mate perform a fantastic courtship ritual that involves flying high over the head of a perching female and swooping down very fast in a pendulum swing action. He may rise up 30 or more feet above the female. The bottom of the pendulum swing arc brings the male down to inches above the females’ head. Wing and tail feathers are spread widely to display their magnificent colorations and sometimes the males make buzzing sounds. These may vary in intensity and pitch, depending upon species. Some of these sounds are vocal and others are created by the air moving through their feathers. This mating ritual is repeated several times and, if the female is impressed with his flashing colors and display vocalizations, she then allows the male to land on her and mate. The actual mating process rarely takes more than a second or two.
Migration myth. Many folks have heard that keeping your nectar feeders filled beyond the summer months prevents the hummers from migrating. This is also untrue. In Tucson, we don’t have a hummingbird season as most northerly regions do. Here, either migrating or resident hummingbirds are present every day of the year. So, in effect, our season is the entire year. Our winters are temperate enough for hummers to overwinter here and, as a result, many northern hummers migrate to our region. The reasons why hummers leave their northern territories and migrate to warmer southern locales is not entirely understood. Researchers have discovered that food availability or abundance/scarcity is not really a factor. It is believed that length of day and the number of sunlight hours are a migration trigger. It is now understood that raging hormones also play an important part in determining when birds migrate. There may be other factors that affect the timing of migration, but much more research is needed before any new conclusions are drawn.
Hummingbirds migrate on the backs of Canada Geese. This is yet another misconception that has been repeated over so long a time that folks assume it true. The theory is that by hitching a ride on the backs of the larger stronger geese, the hummers will be able to conserve energy and therefore won’t have to work so hard or take the risks associated with non-stop long distance travel. Not a shred of evidence exists that suggests this is a true statement. Hummers and geese do migrate, but at different times and to different destinations. Their habitats and food needs are as different as night and day. Hummers are fiercely territorial and aggressive when other species come to close. And, it’s believed that geese wouldn’t tolerate the hummers, as well. Many bird experts, including those who have followed geese migration in ultra-lights, have never witnessed anything like this. They also note that geese fly in migration at relatively high elevations above ground level while hummers are known for migration flight that is usually only 20 to 30 feet above ground level. So, until that first photograph appears showing hummingbirds migrating on the backs of Canada geese, it’s safe to assume that this, too, is a myth.
Myth – Hummingbirds will only feed on red tubular flowers. This myth is easy to disprove in your own yard or garden. As far as nectar producing flowers are concerned, hummers do investigate all nectar producing flowers no matter what their coloration. More research needs to be done, but some scientists believe that the flowers in the warm ultra-violet spectrum of light (yellow, peach, pink, orange, light red, dark red, and purple) are more typically found at lower elevations and may contain slightly sweeter nectar than those higher elevation flowers in the cool ultra-violet spectrum (white, blue, violet). Most natural nectars rarely exceed a sweetness ratio of greater than 6 to 1 (water to sugars). It may be that the densest reds and purples have the sweetest nectar and hummers may prefer them, when available, to other flower colors. But, they go to any nectar producing flower no matter what the color. Years ago, we did some experimenting with a wide variety of differently colored nectar feeders and discovered the hummers go to every one – even those that were brown, white, charcoal gray, metallic silver and even clear with no color.
Tree tobacco is an excellent plant for attracting hummers in that it has nectar producing flowers year round. However, the color of the flowers changes with the seasons. In the coolest months of the year the flowers are greenish, in spring they turn yellow, then peach, by summer they turn into orange and in fall they become deep reddish orange.
If you have questions about this article or hummingbirds in general, contact us. For further research our reference library is available to our readers and we recommend the following books:
The Hummingbirds of North America, by Paul Johnsgard
The Life of the Hummingbird, by Alexander F. Skutch
Hummingbirds & Their Flowers, by Karen & Verne Grant
Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, by Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr.
Hummingbirds of North Amereica, by Dan True
Parent Birds and Their Young, by Alexander F. Skutch