Hummingbirds are the jewels of the bird world.
Brilliant, flashing colors, hovering in mid air, and darting
from flower to flower with acrobatic style. They are
fascinating to watch with their iridescent colors.
Early Spanish explorers to America aptly named them Flying
Jewels. They got the name Hummingbird from early
colonist because of the buzz of their fast moving
wings. The scientific name Trochilidae comes from the
Greek word Trochilos which means small bird.
Hummingbird Song & Wing Sound
Most Hummingbird songs sound like high pitched squeaks or
chirps to the human ear because they are vocalized so fast.
The birds also have distinctive wing noise from their fast
beating wings. Expert birders can identify different
species form the wing sound. To hear the song and wing
sound of a Ruby throat use the drop down arrow and click on
either song or wing sound.
Note on some browsers you will not see or use the drop down
For those that can't use it you can try the sound links
Plumage is the first thing that makes these little birds
stand out. Brilliant colors let them blend in with the
flowers they frequent giving, them some protection from
This color, along with their acrobatic, and swift flying
make them poor targets for large birds of prey. Even
while sitting on a nest the greenish color on the back of
most females hides them from predators above.
While their small feathers do have color most of the color
we see comes from iridescence caused by their feather
structure. This iridescence is a result of how light strikes
platelets. Platelets are air, and melanin filled
feathers that reflect light creating iridescence.
When light hits these cells it is broken apart, causing
some wavelengths to be intensified. The result is the
shimmering colors we see. The colors can be seen only
when the light is hitting the feathers at precisely the right
angle. Different angles will produce different colors causing
the shimmering effect.
Male & Female Plumage
Hummingbirds get their specific names from the brilliant
plumage in the gorget or throat area of the male. Blue
throated, Ruby throated, Magnificent, Black-chinned, Mexican
pink, and others are all named for the gorget.
Just like other feathers, those of the gorget change color depending on
how the light strikes it. The color can go from its
main colors of say red, to blue, green, and back to the
original. Sometimes it will be almost black. In
some species the males will also have colorful crests, and
streamers that attract the females.
In most birds the male is more colorful then the female
but female hummingbirds while not as bright as the male also
have colorful plumage. The females do not have the
brilliant gorget of the male. With females it is harder
determine the species.
North America females are usually whitish gray
below. Females also have white tips on the ends of
their tail feathers.
Nesting and Breeding
Many male hummingbirds do dramatic aerial displays to
attract a mate. After mating the female does all the
work from incubating the eggs, to feeding the young. Because females are not as bright as the male it is harder
for predators to see them as they sit on their nests. The
greenish back of North American hummingbird females
also helps them blend in.
The females build nests that are well camouflaged to
blend in well with surroundings. The 1/2 inch eggs
will incubate for about 15 days.
Wings & Flight
These acrobats of the air have combined the skills of both
birds, and insects. The wings of of hummingbirds
move in a figure-eight pattern, allowing them to hover, and fly
in all directions. It is a wonder to see them hover in
one spot or dive bomb. Their wings are 25 to 30 percent
of their body weight, and beat at up to 80 beats per
second. The normal speed is 25 to 30 mile per hour, but
some reach 65 miles per hour. They fly long
distances. The Ruby throat flies across the Gulf of
Mexico each year.
The bill varies depending on the species. In general
they are long, slender tube shaped. They are usually
straight or with a slight down curve. They are perfect
for probing flowers for nectar or catching insects. The
birds also use them as weapons, and threaten each other with
Because they are so small, and have little insulation
hummingbirds lose body heat rapidly, even while sleeping. To
survive cold nights hummingbirds go into a state called
torpor. In this state they will use 50 times less energy
by reducing their metabolic rate by up to 95 percent.
Number of Species
There are 340 different species. 21 of these reach
the U.S., and 16 of them breed in the United States. The
well known Ruby humminbird covers the widest range, and flies across the
Gulf of Mexico during migration.
They eat insects for protein. Their tongue has groves
on the sides, making it easier to catch insects. Flower nectar is a favorite,
and gives them much needed energy. They have extremely
high metabolism, and need as much energy as they can
get. They need to drink almost twice their weight in
nectar each day. In exchange for this they help pollinate the
How does that saying go? If you build it they will
come. Many people create flower gardens designed
specifically for Hummingbirds, and even butterflies. If
you spread feeders around your yard, hummingbirds will likely
visit. Because they have excellent memories they will
often return to the same flowers or feeders each year.
Hummingbirds are very friendly, and will eat from a feeder
in your hand. Hang around your feeders until they get
used to you. Once they are used to you, hold a feeder
with sugar water in your hand. You will have better luck
if you use one with red on it. Sometimes it helps to
temporarily remove the other feeders. It may take a
while for them to land so be patient.