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
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
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
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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Update: June 2012