The magic of hummingbirds: What no other bird on earth can do

First of three parts

The moment never ceases to amaze: One minute the hummingbird is flying along at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour. The next it skids to an instant halt in mid-air and hangs there suspended, its tiny translucent wings beating at an astounding 80 times a second to keep it aloft.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird comes to a halt, suspended in mid-flight. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal.

Nothing else on Earth can do what this tiny helicopter of a bird can, moving backward and forward, up and down with a metabolism that runs ten times faster than humans. And that’s just the beginning of the magic of the hummingbird, the subject of revealing new studies uncovering its wonders.

Every summer we stay a few weeks in the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts. We spend hours watching the local band of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, by far the dominant species in the eastern U.S., as they prepare for their migrations south.

These birds put on a miniature circus with their acrobatics, costumes of shimmering plumage and mid-flight battles that rival any high-wire act you can imagine. And all of that reaches an accelerated pitch as they prepare for the thousands of miles of migration that await them at the summer’s end.

A male Ruby-throated hangs out on a branch for a moment of calm. Its reddish throat that gives it its name partially visible against its white chest. It’s tiny feet — too small to do much walking — are mostly a tool for perching.
..and a occasional scratch of its long beak.

So there’s no better time to watch these birds at work than right now, partly enabled by hummingbird feeders that open a window on their sheer beauty. On many days, their comings and goings around the feeders stretch from dawn to dusk, like a tiny airport without a tower.

We decided to put together two posts this year, the first devoted mostly to the females and the second to the males. The two are very different, of course: males are far more aggressive and more colorful with bright red throats that give them their name. Females are slightly larger with understated plumage that’s nonetheless breathtaking when caught in mid-air as these next photos show:

When we arrive at our campsite near West Stockbridge, Mass., one of the first things we do is hang a hummingbird feeder and wait to see how long it takes the birds to find us. This year, they arrived the first day, and so began our encounter.

The female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is slightly larger than the male, though both are among the smallest birds on earth.

If the sugar water runs out the birds will let us know with a close buzzing loud enough to startle you. The first time this happened, we couldn’t believe they were sending us a message. But we soon discovered that other bird lovers have had the same experience. My sister Liza and her husband Bill live on the edge of town surrounded by woods full of hummingbirds, a great place to watch the birds. Some days they’ll stack six deep around their feeders.

The feeders are helpful to the birds as they stock up on food. But they also allow us to get a close-up look we wouldn’t otherwise get. When the light is right and the birds are plentiful, I’ll set up my camera on a tripod for hours at a time and try to catch them in action for a look at their mechanics that unfolds too rapidly to see with the naked eye. Here are some of the favorite shots:

Much separates the hummingbird from other species, starting with their miniature size of about three inches long, weighing just 2 to 6 grams, or the heft of a penny. As they sit on a branch for a break, you can literally see their rapid-fire metabolism at work, shaking their tiny bodies as they look this way and that. Their hearts beat as fast as 1,200 times a minute, an overheated engine that demands they eat every ten or 15 minutes — consuming half their body’s weight every day. For a human, that would be like drinking 18 gallons of milk a day.

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

But it is the hummingbird’s shimmering plumage that stands out and has been the subject of the most recent research. A new study, originally published in the journal Communications Biology and featured in the cover story of the latest Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s magazine LivingBird, found that the world’s hummingbirds are not only the most colorful of all species — but they include more hues and shades than the rest of the globe’s birds combined. (Very much worth reading, you can find the article and its many stunning photos here.)

Most of that rainbow of color is found in the male hummingbirds, which are the topic of our next post. We’ll explore how the bird’s feathers project such an array of shades, why they’re so combative and what the latest research is discovering.

A female Ruby-throated, angles her wings and tail feathers as only a hummingbird can do.

5 responses to “The magic of hummingbirds: What no other bird on earth can do”

  1. Awesome! Thank you for sharing! We recently moved and I needed to up my game as there are so many hummingbirds out in the country of Lincolnton, NC!

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. There’s really nothing like a hummingbird.

  2. Ms. Shawn Wilson Avatar
    Ms. Shawn Wilson

    How do I get updates on when the Little Hummers move out of my area so I can take my feeders down?

    1. Thanks for your note — and for your interest in Flying Lessons. There are a number of websites that include range and migration information about hummingbirds, but the one we think is most helpful is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, which includes a status and trends section in its eBird portion. You can type in any species, in this case Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and it will take you to a magnificent series of maps. Look for the animations of the birds’ migration timetable and it will show you when they leave your region to head south — and when they return. Here’s a link to the range maps for the Ruby-throated. Some parts of this data require signing up, but you can look at the weekly timetable and see when the birds are leaving the eastern half of the country: https://science.ebird.org/en/status-and-trends/species/rthhum/abundance-map-weekly?week=8

  3. […] they’re loading up on fuel for their flights and clashing with one another all day long. Our last post focused mostly on the females among them, and this one is on the […]

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