The Flight of the Hummingbird

The Flight of the Hummingbird

A route of evanescence

With a revolving wheel

A resonance of emerald,

A rush of cochineal

With these words, the poet Emily Dickinson summed up the fleeting magic of the hummingbird.  

Hummingbirds are the only vertebrates capable of hovering in place. In addition to flying forwards, they can also fly backward and upside down! They are tiny: the smallest bee hummingbird of Cuba weighs less than 2 grams, less than a penny! Add to this their speed- they can clock up to 45 mph, and stamina- they can fly 18 straight hours, and you may appreciate their unusual metabolism. In fact, they have the highest metabolic rate of any warm blooded animal. 

With a heart beat of 1,200/min and wing beat of 200/sec during flight, hummingbirds generate a tremendous amount of heat. Because their muscles are only ~10% efficient, much of the energy they consume is released as heat. But their thick plumage of feathers keeps in the heat: useful when the bird wants to conserve body heat, but a problem during flight. 

Using infrared thermal photography, scientists have found that hummingbirds (and probably most birds) lose body heat from three areas seen as bright white spots in the gif below: the region around the eyes, at the shoulder where the wings meet the body, and the feet, which they can dangle downward to dissipate even more heat. 



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59 Responses to The Flight of the Hummingbird

  1. Sandy B says:

    Steven Spence​ loves hummingbirds.

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Sandy B so do I! With so many unique features, I tried to restrict myself to only a few. 

  3. indeed I do, Sandy B , but sadly they don’t live near me. Very nice general write up on them Rajini Rao . The thermal imaging is very powerful in understanding this quickly. 

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Steven Spence time to vacation in the Andes! 🙂 According to Wiki: By 22 million years ago, the ancestral species of current hummingbirds became established in South America, where environmental conditions stimulated further diversification.

  5. THE EYE says:

    Steven Spence​​ He could have just posted a slo-motion video gif.

  6. That could do be a future trip. Lovely scenery and wild birds. 🙂

  7. rare avis says:

    The wing speed that makes Hummingbirds, in large part, so mesmerizing ~ is also the very thing that I’m up against.

    Capturing a focused photo of these guys is tough.

    Love them, still.

    Still. Yes: that’s what I need: a hummingbird that magically floats, mid-air.

    Though, on reflection, they’re much cooler just the way they are.

    Cool thermal imagery, and cool science, too.

    Thank you, Rajini Rao !

    I hope you have a lovely Sunday, and hopefully time for a long, relaxing read; or any soul-lifting indulgence…

    Take good care. 🙂

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    rare avis a deliberate blurring of the hummingbird wings would make a cool image too! Thanks for the Sunday wishes. I am indeed slouching about now, but will need to get ahead on some review assignments so that I can keep the last week of December work-free (unlikely, but still worth a try!). 

  9. We should call it Humming firebird 🙂

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    Or a Hot Shot 🙂 Chris Veerabadran 

  11. Haydar Deeb says:

    Very hot from inside

  12. Thank you for gave knowledge

  13. Beautiful my favorite Bird thank you so much

  14. Gary Ray R says:

    I carry my camera outside with me all the time as we have a Charm of these little beast that live around our home.  I am still working on that perfect photograph.

    Interesting tidbit, many hummingbirds eat bugs for their protein and use the sweet nectar from feeders like gasoline fuel to go out hunting bugs.  That is why it is important to keep food in your feeders once you have an established Charm that dines locally.

    I never get to use the group name for hummingbirds much so I do tend to name drop it a bit when possible.

  15. I love hummingbirds. I haven’t experienced it myself, but those who ban hummingbirds (which takes a special permit beyond typical bird banding), have to set up a different type of trap. They can’t use a mist net thanks to a hummingbird’s ability to hover in place and fly backwards; they see the net in time and stop before getting caught. Usually when banning a feeder is used as “bait”. The birds go in the little net construct and a wall shuts behind them. The bands they used are incredibly tiny! It’s a fun process to see 🙂

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    Gary Ray R I love hearing about the charm of hummingbirds! What’s with the red coloring in sugar water in hummingbird feeders? Good or bad? Anecdotally, I have seen hummingbirds preferentially visit red flowers in my garden, so I’m guessing there is some biology behind that.

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Carissa Braun thanks for the cool info on working with these jeweled beauties. It must take some training to handle them with care! 

  18. Gary Ray R says:

    The red is more for the humans than the hummers. Although they do like to go to red flowers, most sources say don’t use red dye in hummingbird nectar. 

  19. Plug a thermocouple and produce electricity! Avio-electric power 😉

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Ramesh Sistla yes! There is at least 8 degree difference between the white areas and the rest of the body, that should work 🙂

  21. Raoni says:

    it’s a copp fish dens within his wings we may find the truth to power the bares the golden stars it’s a power plant within a blister a copper strud to be withn the lands the quary to get this free power within the heat thermal exchange the coppery inverse polotting change into an imploder it would take back the carbon i breath right now torugh every forest fire i don’t know but the imploder will be someday the real power to well invert the magnetical glow the free trees the clover glove to get this nice power to be even in India where the free power is the real power to get this intertial glow within the coperry plow it’s asnakes battlings it’s way trough the seas making the free power within the lick the pattern we’ll spread around the word to get this free stuff to be eradicating the nuclear ivy the risal o f the seas within thoses tongues the Sidney changes we’ll waist trough the light induced World an inertial movements into the gravity dens what is antigravity :p inonan seas it’s the unravel stickers to be ? the coils i saw a stickers on a car in my street :/// //// hygrocopters might raise the treasure within the seas to raise it’s levels down the free power inverters taking the mercury within the seas to get this free foam to be the snakes the pretty power we’ll treils upon the the Indian seas the free power to stream the free levers the magnnetical intakers within the little islands or any coastal ridges

  22. rare avis says:

    Rajini Rao

    I wondered the same thing when I wanted to begin to feed hummingbirds.

    My Mother fed them out of a saucer; plain white coffee cup saucer, plain sugar water, on her deck railing. They loved it.

    When I investigated, I learned that hummingbirds will drink nectar from any flower or feeder.

    The red flowers you describe were likely visited more frequently because some red flowers have more nectar.

    Researchers proved this by creating a hybrid flower that was lighter in color, and eventually, this lighter color flower had more nectar. The hummingbirds began to target the lighter colored flower and increasingly ignored the red one and other flowers with less nectar.

    They cared only about nectar, not color, and they remembered which specific flowers had more.

    I think the red coloration and the fact that many have a good deal of nectar was considered to be a strategy, in some cases, to attract certain pollinators, including hummingbirds.

    Hope that helps, and I hope I interpreted all of the findings correctly.

    Here’s a blog post I found, which cites the same study I read about…

  23. These birds are a sight to watch. My children and I used to wake up early and sit at the window to watch them at the feeder. It was our treasured activity.

  24. I once had the good fortune to hold a hummingbird. It became trapped in an arched breezeway that had a lighted sky mural on the ceiling. The mural apparently confused the poor critter, who very much wanted to fly through it. I managed to convince the wee beastie to fly into my hand so I could take it to a flowering garden area outside. In round, tactile estimations, this bird weighed nothing.

    It was so hungry and ate ravenously; after dining it circled my head at close range before leaving. I’m pretty sure that was a thank you.

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    rare avis perfect, thank you for digging up the research on the red color/hummingbird link. It’s good to know that the color preference is an urban myth! 

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    Rashmi Pahuja we see them in the garden too, although our MD birds are mostly a drab color with a flash of brilliance at their throat. Still, they’re a sight to watch! 

  27. Rajini Rao says:

    Lucky you, Michael Verona  to have held such a tiny burst of energy and life in the palm of your hand! 

  28. Your article inspired me to read more about hummingbirds and I found out about their interesting metabolic process called Glomerular Filtration. It seems to work like an afterburner on their kidneys allowing them to reabsorb waste and turn sugar into energy much more quickly than other vertebrates.

    During the day when it’s working their core body temperature is about 40°C (105 F), When they turn it off at night their temperature drops to 18 °C (65 F).

    Are hummingbirds able to reabsorb waste because of less toxicity in there diet or do they have super kindness that work a little differently than other vertebrates?

  29. Rajini Rao says:

    Hi Patrick Staight  , you are referring to torpor. At night, when hummingbirds cannot forage for food, their heart rate and metabolism slows way down like a mini-hibernation. That’s why they cool down as well. Their kidney function slows, to conserve water and energy (more below). The GFR, or glomerular filtration rate, refers to kidney function.

    The kidney is made up of many little units called nephrons, inside each is a ball-like network of blood vessels called glomerulus. As blood enters and leaves this network, it is filtered so that sugars, salts, toxins (pretty much everything small in size) leaves the blood. Nearly all of it is absorbed back into the blood and what is left becomes urine. The glomerular filtration rate controls how much stuff is filtered. By slowing down GFR, the hummingbird conserves energy and water. It’s all part of this deep sleep like state called torpor. 

  30. Rajini Rao that’s really interesting. So is the hummingbird’s kidney function more different than other vertebrates when the bird is awake or during its nightly hibernation?

  31. Rajini Rao says:

    Patrick Staight the hummingbird kidney is more efficient because they consume so much dilute nectar and have to remove all that excess water from their body. They other unusual thing is being able to shut them down at night, during torpor. Kidneys use up a lot of energy when they work, so that makes sense. 

  32. Rajini Rao says:

    Noel Abraham Cheriyan I didn’t know that! I read that both upstroke and downstroke are “power” strokes, perhaps that is related to your point, not sure. 

  33. Rajini Rao says:

    Patrick Staight I forgot to leave this interesting link on hummingbird and sunbird kidneys

  34. Rajini Rao says:

    Mark Bruce interestingly, on the one hand, longevity is proportional to body size in birds and mammals. So you expect hummingbirds to  be on the low end of the scale, and they are (birds can live for many decades). On the other hand, hummingbirds live surprisingly long given their high metabolic rates, which generally correlate to lower life span (according to theory that oxidative damage increase with metabolic rates). Perhaps their nightly torpor gives their body a chance to repair damage. All in all, quite remarkable! 

  35. Yes, I found this article on hummingbirds most interesting , thanks to all involved.

  36. Big things in small packages…….

  37. Nikhil Lohar says:

    Anybody please tell about origin of bird ? Mine blowing

  38. Love these little bird. I feed them all summer

  39. Great collection madam ;

    Hats off ; Your Album Has taken more than 4 hrs;

    Thanks for putting them public;

    A thing of beauty is joy forever;

    There are hundreds in your Album

  40. Cool !Not to much longer until i get to my hummingbirds feeder out!

  41. haha this is a nice gif!

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