Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin Mo. 347-A    May 31, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Hummingbirds, found only in the Western Hemisphere, are undoubtedly the most remarkable birds in the world. They are not only unique for their brilliant iridescent plumage, manner of flying and way of feeding, but also for their great variation in size, form, color, habits and other attributes. Many species are midgets no larger than bumblebee, weighing no more than a dime, but the largest is about the size of a chimney swift -- to which they are distantly related. One species has a bill only one-quarter inch in length, while that of another is almost five inches long -- greater than the combined length of its head, neck, body and tail. The bill is usually straight or nearly so, awl-shaped and needle-pointed, but in one species it curves downward like a sickle and in a few others it curves upward. The wings and tail are equally variable.

There are about 500 kinds, most numerous in tropical and mountainous regions, but only 13 are common in the United States. One of these, the Rufous Hummingbird, ranges as far north as the coast of Alaska! The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only one nesting east of the Mississippi, ranging from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast and from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada. It may winter in southern Florida but most of them prefer the West Indies or Central America. It seems almost unbelievable that these tiny birds are able to fly, non-stop, 500 or 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico.

Although they are fearless and easily tamed, few people ever see a hummer except as one feeds on the wing from flowers in a garden, an orchard, or a patch of jewelweed in some bottomland. It can perch on a twig but it cannot walk. Its cottony nest, about the size of a walnut and straddling a branch, is perfectly camouflaged with lichens. The bird has a remarkable resemblance to a hawk moth and the humming buzz of its blurring wings is also similar. Shifting from flower to flower with piston-like precision it can hover in one spot, fly forward, backward, sideways, up or down, and dart away like a bullet.

Modern high-speed flash cameras have revealed the secret of its flight. The wings can be turned vertically as well as horizontally, like the blades of a helicopter, and beat alternately or in unison. 'I hey vibrate at from 55 to 75 times per second. In a diving courtship flight, as a male swings back and forth like a pendulum before his lady love, this vibration may reaches 200 times per second. Avery large breastbone, powerful muscles, and the long outer "forearm" of the wing make such night possible.

Hummingbirds have relatively smaller stomachs and larger livers than most birds but, altho they sip nectar from flowers, much of their food and that of their young consists of young spiders, small beetles and insects that they find in flowers or capture in mid-air. They apparently prefer tubular flowers such as petunia, columbine, trumpet vine, honeysuckle, lobelia, salvia, tiger lily, canna and jewelweed. Many of these flowers happen to be red, pink or orange but the experts say that color is not a factor. Thistles, roses and fruit tree blossoms are also visited.

The hummingbird's tongue, like that of the woodpeckers, is peculiarly adapted for this manner of feeding. It is a sort of double-barreled tube, split and fringed at the tip, which can be extended far beyond the end of the bill and used for sucking nectar from flowers or serving as a probe or sticky brush to collect small insects.

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