Hummingbird Adaptation and Remarkable Ability to Locate Food

There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds living in North and South America. Hummingbirds find ways to adapt and locate their own food supply in order to nourish and sustain their extremely high metabolism. Their beaks and tongues are specially designed to gather nectar and to pollinate flowers that other insects are incapable of pollinating.

What special adaptations does a hummingbird have to acquire its nutritional needs?

  • A specialized tongue that extends twice the length of its beak.
  • A hinged lower beak to catch bugs in flight.
  • A five-times-normal size hippocampus for episodic memory.
  • The ability to hover.
  • The ability to fly backward.

How long is a hummingbird’s tongue?

On average, hummingbirds have a translucent tongue twice as long as their beaks, therefore, their tongue length varies greatly among the various bird species found in the Americas. Their beak length varies from 8 mm to 119 mm.

Their fork-like designed tongues are lined and covered with tiny hairs called lamellae to extract and drink nectar. The hummingbird tongue laps up nectar 12-18 times a second.

Scientists used to think hummingbirds used their tongues like a straw to drink the nectar. Later they discovered the dynamic tongue of a hummingbird is more complicated than they initially realized.

The hummingbird’s tongue collects nectar and is equipped with two long narrow tubes that sharply taper down at the end of the tongue. At the tip of each tube, there are flaps that look like a rolled up coiled spring in a straw that is attached to a rod.

When the hummingbirds aren’t feeding, these two rows of coiled springs stay tightly sealed. When it’s time for the hummingbirds to eat, their tongue touches the nectar inside the flower and the tip of their tongue splits like a fork.

When this “tongue splitting” occurs the row of coiled springs uncurls. As the tongue is withdrawn from the flower or feeder the coiled springs reconnect again to retain the nectar and feed the hummingbird.

This autonomic feeding process is performed thousands of times a day and happens so rapidly that it is not visible to the naked eye. It is hard to realize this motion is repeated in less than 1/20th of a second each time.

How long is a hummingbird’s beak?

A hummingbird’s beak varies in length from 8mm to 119mm depending on the region. The Bee hummingbird is the smallest hummingbird species and has the smallest beak. The Sword-billed hummingbird has the longest beak documented and is longer than the rest of its body.

To put this huge difference in perspective, a minute hand on a wristwatch is 8 mm long. Two (2) minute hands on a wristwatch plus two (2) bobby pins laid end-to-end is 117 mm.

The various sizes and shapes of a hummingbird’s beak provide the perfect match to collect nectar from any type of flower. Luckily, there is not a one size fits all philosophy when it comes to hummingbirds. This allows all hummingbirds to have their fair share and opportunity of accessing food.

There is always a flower that complements the beak size of any hummingbird.

No bird size beak is ever neglected.

Can a hummingbird open its beak?

A hummingbird’s lower mandible is flexible and can open wide enough to allow it to catch small insects and tiny bugs in mid-air. Contrary to a hummingbird’s bone structure being hollow, their beak is dense and solid.

Hummingbirds cannot live off of sweet nectar alone. They fulfill their protein requirements by consuming spiders, fruit flies, and small bugs which aid in muscle repair and feather strength. The added nutritional value promotes the overall health of a hummingbird.

Watching these diving acrobats in motion catching bugs is an entertaining and enjoyable experience to witness.

Do hummingbirds have a good memory?

Hummingbirds have excellent episodic memory, they remember every flower they have ever visited as well as how long it takes that flower to refill with nectar. A hummingbird’s hippocampus is 5 times larger than any other bird in relation to the proportion of their body.

The hippocampus of the brain controls learning and memory, so at five times normal size, it’s easy for them to remember every hummingbird feeder in their territory, as well as all the feeders they visit during their traveled migration.

They also learn and recognize who is in charge of refilling their weekly hummingbird feeder, therefore the human hand who supplies a continued food supply of new nectar is well known and admired.

Scientists have discovered hummingbirds to have episodic memory, in order to help them forage daily for food. This type of long term memory can be quickly remembered and incorporates recalling specific events and details such as date, time and location of previously found nectar sources.

Some examples of hummingbirds using their episodic memory include:

  • Not visiting the same flower twice before the flower has time to regenerate nectar.
  • Remembering the exact locations of all the flowers and the quality of the nectar of each flower they have ever visited.
  • Knowing the precise amount of time it takes each flower to refill with nectar.
  • Recollecting the specific number of nectar-producing flowers at each specific field of flowers.

These useful time management skills guarantee productive foraging which is necessary for survival. Storing past positive experiences benefits the hummingbird’s ability to feed successfully, by adding the date, time, and location into their long term memory.

When a hummingbird has a pragmatic experience of locating a fortune of plentiful nectar, they will store it away in their hippocampus for safekeeping and use it to self serve their interests in the future.

Can a hummingbird hover?

Hummingbirds are the only bird that truly hovers. It has the ability to generate “lift” on both the downstroke as well as the upstroke of its wings. All other birds can only generate lift on the downstroke of their wings.

Insects can hover and do generate lift on both the downstroke and the upstroke of their wings, but insects frequently have more than one set of wings.

The big difference between insects and hummingbirds is that insects have exoskeletons (bony structures are on the outside of their bodies) while birds, like humans, have endoskeletons (bones on the inside of their body).

The hummingbird’s adaptation of being able to hover greatly enhances the hummingbird’s ability to extract the nectar of the long tubular blossoms.

According to a research article in the National Institutes of Health, hummingbirds are the only bird that can sustain hovering.
See the NIH research article here…

Can a hummingbird fly backward?

The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward. The hummingbird has the adaptation of flying backward due to their ability to rotate at the attachment of the wings to their body. Their shoulders can rotate 180 degrees allowing them to fly backward.

This shoulder rotation adaptation, along with the ability to generate lift on both the downstroke and the upstroke of their wings, allows them not only to maintain their position vertically but also horizontally.

It takes a lot of stability to insert a long beak and extend their extra long tongue into a tubular blossom, especially on a windy day.

How much nectar does a hummingbird drink in a day?

  • A hummingbird consumes half of its body weight in food a day.
  • An average hummingbird weighs between 2-6 grams, therefore they consume 1-3 grams daily.
  • Hummingbirds eat 5-8 times per hour or roughly every 10 minutes. Their feeding length lasts approximately 30 seconds.
  • Twelve hours of daylight could mean 120 meals a day for a hummingbird.

Hummingbirds visit hundreds of flowers daily. Their feeding frequency is related to the amount of energy they spend to sustain their high metabolism, therefore they are always in search of food.

Flowers are a gold mine for every hummingbird species. Their main goal is to supply their body with quick energy by converting as much food into usable energy in a timely fashion to sustain life.

Hummingbirds have to search for easily digestible food, such as the nectar found in flowers, to supply their bodies with energy.

Hummingbirds maintain a healthy diet by adding bugs for protein. However, their quick answer to survival is still the consumption of sucrose in nectar to sustain their high energy levels.

Which flowers are the best source of nectar?

Trumpet Vine, Japanese Honeysuckle, Coral Honeysuckle, Sweet Pea, Foxglove, Cigar Plant and Salvia plants hold the most nectar and are attractive to hummingbirds. These plants listed above have either a long tubular shaped flower or a variation of the color red.

A hummingbird’s eye can easily detect preferred flower shapes and colors using their spatial awareness, especially as they fly.

Once the hummingbird finds these tubular red blooms, they know they have “hit the jackpot” of all nectar and will remember this location for the rest of their lives.

This information assists hummingbirds in any troubled circumstance to remedy a bad situation where food sources are scarce into a positive experience. If the nectar-bearing flowers at any specific location disappear, hummingbirds will know where the closest location of preferred flower blooms resides.

A hummingbird’s hippocampus is 5 times larger than any other bird in relation to the proportion of their body. This area of the brain controls learning and memory. Hummingbirds have excellent spatial memory, therefore they remember every flower they have visited as well as how long it takes nectar to refill in a flower.

Final thoughts

Hummingbirds are all about their species and individual survival.

The species for survival is totally dependent on the availability of female hummingbirds.

Individual survival, for both genders, is dependent on nectar and insect availability per their food requirements.

Hanging hummingbird feeders and having compost or over-ripened fruit such as bananas to attract bugs will definitely entice both female and male hummingbirds to your location.

A hummingbird’s episodic memory allows them to remember locations where they have found bugs, nectar, or a place to find a mate for procreating.

Expect to see these migrating hummingbirds full of happy memories
visiting your backyard yearly as they continue their journey, while the non-migrating hummingbirds will never want to leave your yard!

Happy Hummingbird Watching!

Elizabeth Donaldson

Hi Everyone! I have always been fascinated and amazed by the skill, strength, and beauty of hummingbirds. I hope this article answered your questions.

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