The first time I saw a hummingbird, the impossible flitting of its wings sucked the breath from my chest. These little birds seem to do amazing things effortlessly, and it’s not just from eating 26% sugar nectar.
Getting a buzz on
Hummingbirds have the fastest metabolism of any animal, so unsurprisingly they need high energy food. They’re also the only vertebrate that can sustain hovering (take that, kestrels), and can fly backwards, sideways and even upside down. They’ve been clocked at 80 wing beats a second, but as you’ll discover throughout this post, hummingbirds do several things at once at super speed. Rather than clumsily flapping up and down, it’s more like elbow-wiggling while rotating the wrists in a figure 8. It sounds complicated, but it’s just another day for a hummingbird. A very busy day, though.
When your white-hot metabolism demands endless fuel, you don’t have time for friends. A good supply of nectar, or the odd unlucky insect, is worth oodles more than company, making hummingbirds extremely territorial. If the food dries up, they simply follow the flowers, with some species migrating great distances. Well, perhaps not that great, because recent fossils have us scratching our heads.
Nowadays you only find hummingbirds in North and South America, but the earliest fossils are from Germany. It’s thought they split off from their closest relatives, the swifts, about 42 million years ago, but the oldest remains from the New World are only 10,000 years old. Not everyone is convinced they flew across the Siberia-Alaska land-bridge, let alone an ocean, but again, we’re always finding new or rediscovering things about them.
A sweet feat to eat
Until recently, we assumed that when hummingbirds dipped their long tongues in nectar, the two-tube split-ends passively soaked it up. We now know it’s much more complex – the tubes and whole tongue are both a nectar “trap” and a piston pump to help the bird swallow. This isn’t any extra effort on the hummingbird’s part, because it’s the change in surface tension that sweeps up the nectar. How do we know this? Well, it worked on a dead hummingbird, and unfortunately, there are plenty about.
Not charmless enough
Another recent, less fantastic discovery is Mexico’s illegal trade in hummingbird “love charms”, due to their apparent symbolism. It doesn’t matter which species is used, either, and you’ve probably felt the same about this post so far. That’s because the dusky hummingbird is similarly under the radar.
Hummingbird or slummingbird?
It’s the curse of the jaguarundi again – dusky hummingbirds seem common in Mexico, but we know very little about its feeding or breeding habits, other than it’s not too choosy about the nectar it feeds on, has a call like a squeaky stone chip, and the females deliberately make their nests look a mess to disguise them as debris (at least that’s their story). It doesn’t even migrate, so we have no excuse not to know more than that! And being a hummingbird, there’s probably some intricate and amazing things happening under its dusky veil. But who’s going to lift it?
Latin: Cynanthus sordidus
What? Little bird that hovers by whirring its wings
Where? Open, arid areas with shrubs, or gardens and roadsides in southwestern Mexico
How big? 9-10 cm / 3.5-3.9 inches long
Endangered? For once, nope, currently Least Concern, although illegal trade in hummingbird “love charms” is a growing concern at least.
Probable motto: Buzz off, this is my flower.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
Dusky is Least Concern, but if you’re in the US you can help its friends and relatives with The Spruce‘s tips for helping and attracting them, and the Hummingbird Society also gives love to these little flitters.
The American Bird Conservancy also runs projects to counter habitat loss and other threats to species like the endangered ruby-throated hummingbird.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Arizmendi, M. d. C., C. I. Rodríguez-Flores, C. A. Soberanes-González, and T. S. Schulenberg. 2013. “Dusky Hummingbird (Cynanthus sordidus)“, version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA
“Cynanthus sordidus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Ebersole, Rene. 2018. “Inside the black market hummingbird love charm trade“. National Geographic.
“Hummingbirds“. No date. Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
Mock, Jillian. 2018. “The origins of hummingbirds are still a major mystery“. Audubon.
Yong, Ed. 2017. “Hummingbirds are were intuition goes to die“. The Atlantic.
Züchner, T. & Kirwan, G.M. 2018. “Dusky Hummingbird (Cynanthus sordidus)“. In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Featured image credit: “Clibrí Opaco (Cynanthus sordidus)” by Arturo Duchateau
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