Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hummingbirds: God's Little Miracles in the Skies

Lovely little hummingbird in my backyard in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

 Close your eyes and imagine. Picture tiny birds the size of your pinky hovering in front of your face, frustrated, impatient, waiting for you to hang his feeder so he can drink his fill of sugar water.

Hummingbird photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

You hang the feeder and within seconds a dozen birds are drinking, flitting back and forth, flying around your head, flying around each other as if they are sparring, which is a fairly accurate way to describe their aggressive behavior. These funny, charming, lovely, and yes, aggressive little birds are hummingbirds, and watching them is pure delight.
Hummingbird in the Texas Hill Country singing in the early morning hours. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Hummingbirds are the smallest warm-blooded creatures on earth. In fact, the Bee Hummingbird is the smallest at 5 cm. They are tiny and bold and appear to be playful, but the "chase" around the feeder is remarkably aggressive, territorial behavior. There is a company in California that makes a robotic hummingbird, and real hummingbirds will even dive-bomb at the robot to defend their territory!

Hummingbird at feeder in Marble Falls, Texas. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The Precision Balancing Act of Feeding

Hummingbirds are blessed to have plants built especially for them, plants that grow with their flowers long and thin and hanging from the end of branches to protect them from insects. These flowers are perfect for the hummingbird with its precision flying capabilities, hovering in place like a helicopter while they extract the nectar.

Red Yucca flowers are perfect for hummingbirds, providing a perch for their tiny feet. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The nectar is pure sugar, high energy food, but it takes a tremendous amount of energy and wing movement for the bird to hover in one place while it finishes its meal! They have to eat every 15 minutes or they will literally starve to death because of the energy required to pump their hearts. In order to survive the night their body temperature drops by half and their heart rate reduces from 600 beats per minute to 36.

 Hummingbird in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

As explained in Nat Geo Wild, the birds is forced into a careful balancing act. No other bird is capable of performing this precision balance act in order to obtain its meal.

Hummingbird photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Sometimes, all the precision balance in the world will not keep the flower in place, though. We had beautiful, tall, purple flowers growing in the shade behind our house in Texas and just as soon as a flower would bloom on a stalk, a hummingbird would stop by for a drink and knock the flower from the branch. No worries there! The next morning, a new flower would take its place! Like everything else in nature, there is a symbiotic relationship between hummingbirds and many flowering plants.

Flight of the Hummingbird

The most remarkable aspect of hummingbirds is the way they fly. All birds lift on the downstroke, then fold their wings on the upstroke, except for Swifts, who are relatives of the hummingbirds. Their wings beat from 80 to 200 times per second!

Hummingbird eating. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

They move like a helicopter in all directions, including straight up and down and can even hover in place. I often see them hovering in front of me, waiting for me to hang the feeder in the backyard!

Hummingbird at rest, singing. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The bird must get oxygen to its muscles and its heart beats 400 times per minute when perched, 1200 beats per minute in flight. The blood circulates throughout the body in less than one second. They are truly extreme athletes. They spend 80% of their day perched to rest and groom.

Hummingbirds keep their wings stiff and do not fold them. They rotate their wings at the shoulder, which is what gives them power and advantage, the most accomplished flyers that have ever taken to the air, according to Nat Geo. They can remain in the air for hours. They can fly upside down and rotate on the spot to obtain nectar from hard-to-reach flowers. Watching hummingbirds in flight is an amazing experience.

Hummingbird in flight. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.


Most hummingbirds in the US and Canada migrate south in the fall and spend their winters in Mexico or Central America, but some stick around. I've seen hummingbirds overwinter in the Hill Country of Texas. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, which I've seen in Texas and New Mexico, migrate from Ontario to Texas, the Gulf of Mexico or Central America. 
Hummingbird in my backyard in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman. 

Baby Birds!

Male hummingbirds do not help with the nesting, so the female is left with a lot of work as their nests are built in a cup shape and often formed with a combination of spider silk and mud. It can be as small as a walnut shell. One of my neighbors pointed a nest out to me once and I was shocked to learn that the bird I thought was simply sitting in a nearby tree was protecting a nest where a branch connected to the trunk. There are usually two eggs and incubation lasts 14 to 23 days. Momma feeds the babies by regurgitating nectar into their tiny mouths.

Baby hummingbird in our backyard, Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.



Maria Dunn said...

I just love to come back and look at the amazing photos you share, Darla Sue. I am a big fan of bird watching and love to watch the hummingbirds at the feeders and they whiz back and forth from trees to feeders. Enjoy, Maria at Delight Directed Living

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I am also a bird watcher (as you've probably figured out by now) and just noticed two hummingbirds at our feeder! We are in the high desert of New Mexico and I usually put the feeders out at the end of February because one or two birds show up early, but this is the month when they start crowding around the flowers and feeders and my camera is ready! My favorite pictures are the ones that show how their wings work, like helicopters--so cool!