The Humble Hummingbirds

hummingbird1I have been observing hummingbirds for many years; over 30 years in the tropical and temperate regions. The problem with observing hummingbirds is that they are so energetic, fast flying around and never sitting in the shrubs, and their body is small. So, using the regular binoculars or cameras will be too difficult to see them and make documentation. Most people just see the hummingbirds when they are not ready with the camera, let alone the beautiful color of hummingbirds and their balance while flying and sucking the nectar always hypnotize us to enjoy the moment with naked eyes in a few seconds.

Recently in the mid of Winter of early this year, incidentally when I took a photograph of a curly or corkscrew hazelnut plant at my customer’s partio, a male Anna’s hummingbird with iridescent crown and gorget feathers stopped by for a while. He was flying and sucking the artificial nectar from the feeder in the distance of less than a meter in front of me. I clicked my regular digital camera and I got it! It is my best photo of a hummingbird with no plan before in the foggy morning at the temperature around 1 degree Celsius in the Vancouver area. The photo can be zoomed to see the detail.

By looking at the journey of that male Anna’s hummingbird before hibernation to end the Winter, it is fascinating to understand the symbiotic relationship between human and hummingbird. The timing to refill the artificial nectar in the hummingbird feeder is just right because the nectar begins to freeze at around minus 2 degrees Celsius. Humans and hummingbirds appreciate one another and both get benefits because much more flowers will be pollinated in Spring, Summer, and Autumn for the continuation and diversification of life.

Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) is a medium-sized hummingbird native to the west coast of North America. Their main role is in transplanting of exotic ornamental plants in residential areas. They are called hummingbirds because of the humming sound produced by the feathers of the wings or tail vibrating against the air. Anna’s hummingbird is the only species of hummingbird that can sing for more than 10 seconds; which is long enough for a hummingbird.

Based on Darwin’s hummingbirds provide evidence for reciprocal evolution or coevolution between species of animals and plants, in this case between hummingbirds and their Heliconia food plant from the island of the Lesser Antilles. There is a “dance” between species of hummingbirds and Heliconia flowers. There are wide variations of hummingbirds in their body mass, in the size, shape of their bills, and wings depending on the shape and size of the Heliconia flowers. It is a central challenge for comparative and evolutionary biology to understand the sources of remarkable variation in nature.

Moreover, the sexual size difference or dimorphism among hummingbirds support the survival of the fittest of both hummingbirds and Heliconia plants. Males tend to be smaller than females, allowing conservation of energy to forage competitively and participate more frequently in courtship. Female hummingbirds tend to be larger with longer beaks that allow more effective reach of tall flowers for nectar.

It has been reported that hummingbirds while in flight have the highest metabolism of all animals, with the exception for insects. Can you imagine that their heart rate can reach as high as 1250 beats per minute, with a breathing rate of 250 breaths per minute even at rest. During their flight, oxygen consumption per gram of muscle tissue can be 10 times higher than that measure in world ranking human athletes. In addition, during a day of nectar consumption with high water intake can be 5 times of their body weight per day, so the hummingbird kidneys are unique for the regulation of water and electrolytes.

Most animals and humans with such rapid metabolisms usually have a short lifespan, but it does not happen in hummingbirds. It was recorded that the longest lifespan of hummingbirds can be up to 12 years with the average lifespan about 5 years. There is a tendency that the medium- and large-size of hummingbirds will live longer than the small-size hummingbirds. The bee hummingbirds measure 5 centimeters in length and weigh less than 2 grams.

Are you ready to learn more about life from the humble hummingbirds? Keep moving on, eat less and drink more nectar (juice or just immortal water). Cheers!

– Bintoro Gunadi


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