Hummingbirds: Flights of fancy

Hyperactive hummers can hover, loop the loop, fly upside down and reverse in midair. Jonathan Elphick is entranced by a family of bejewelled birds that live life in the fast lane.

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Hummingbird opening spread - a hummingbird hovers at a flower.
Hyperactive hummers can hover, loop the loop, fly upside down and reverse in midair. Jonathan Elphick is entranced by a family of bejewelled birds that live life in the fast lane.
 
However much you think wildlife TV will have prepared you for the moment you first encounter a hummingbird, the reality is visceral and not intellectual. This is particularly true if, as often happens, one suddenly materialises, with a filmy blur of wings and a startlingly loud buzz, just inches in front of your nose.
 
No other bird seems to scrutinise you in this unnerving manner and, by the time you have regained your composure, the hummingbird has zipped away.
 
I have always found it difficult – if not impossible – to follow these real-life Tinkerbells in my binoculars when they are airborne.
 
My hummingbird epiphany, over 20 years ago, was in an Argentine wildlife reserve with a common species, the glittering-bellied emerald.
 
But it matters not where and which one deigns to grace you with its fleeting presence – all members of this large family of some 330 species are miraculous and endlessly entrancing.
 
Vast range
 
Since that encounter I have marvelled at ‘hummers’, as they are affectionately known by enthusiasts of all stripes, at both ends of the family’s vast range: against a backdrop of the snowy peaks of Washington and the Canadian Rockies and – over 12,000km to the south – in similarly cold and lofty terrain in Tierra del Fuego.
 
I’ve also fallen under the spell of these flashy birds in various places in between, from steamy lowland rainforests, home to a plethora of stunningly beautiful and typically hyperactive species, to the bleak Andean Altiplano, where I watched the
comparatively slow-flying giant hummingbird.
 
This high-altitude denizen is a whopper, but only in relation to the rest of its kind: it seldom weighs over 20g – rather less than a house sparrow. Most of its relatives are seriously small. 
 
Birds in miniature
 
The hummingbird family name, Trochilidae, derives from the Greek word that Aristotle used for a small bird (probably the species we now know as the European wren).
 
Even that little creature, a feathery ball that tips the scales at 8–12g, looks like a hunk in this company. Most hummers are in the 2.5–6.5g range, and the smallest, the bee hummingbird of Cuba, weighs just 1.6–1.9g (little more than a standard paperclip).
 
It is dwarfed by many insects, and half of its total length of 5.5cm is bill and tail. Its dainty nest measures barely 2.5cm across; its eggs are smaller than coffee beans.
 
Flair in the air
 
Albatrosses amaze us by circling the oceans with scarcely a wing beat, and swifts can stay aloft for several years without landing, but no other birds are a match for the manoeuvrability or hovering prowess of hummingbirds.
 
Swifts and hummingbirds are quite closely related, in fact: both are classified in the Apodiformes, an order named after the Greek for ‘without feet’. To such supremely aerial beings, their feet (yes, they do have them, albeit minute, weak ones) are of little consequence, except for gripping a perch when resting. They are useless for walking or climbing.
 
Again like swifts, the wings of hummers have a very different anatomy to that of most birds. The ‘arm’ bones are greatly reduced, while the ‘hand’ bones, supporting the 10 primary feathers that power the birds through the air, are unusually long.
 
Athletic endurance
 
The extreme flexibility of the shoulder joints allows hummingbirds to angle their wings in improbable positions, enabling them to not only dash forwards or hover seemingly motionless, but also to dart up, down, upside down or backwards.
 
As with ballet dancers, though the performance may appear effortless, this shape-shifting is anything but. It is achieved only through considerable effort from an array of muscles acting in complex combinations.
 
The flight muscles of hummingbirds constitute almost one-third of their overall mass. To provide enough oxygen to power them, the birds must take about 500 breaths per minute. Even at rest, the figure is 300 (compared with a feral pigeon’s 30, or a paltry 14–18 in a typical adult human).
 
Pretty but pugnacious
 
Hummingbirds beat their little wings astonishingly fast. A typical rate is 70–80 movements per second, but during high-speed dashes this may soar to over 200 per second. The flight speed of various species measured in lab conditions was 48–85kph.
 
In the wild, speeds of up to 96kph have been recorded, briefly rising to 150kph during courtship displays. Hummers also change into top gear during their midair squabbles (these birds may look pretty, but they are pugnacious, too). 
 
You will often see hummers duelling over choice blooms. In Panama I once watched, dazzled, as a male rufous coquette, his teeny head adorned by a long, spiky reddish crest, repeatedly shot forwards to steal nectar from a flowering shrub ‘owned’ by a male rufous-tailed hummingbird.
 
The latter, though able to chase off other species attempting to raid his private food supply, was not quite fast enough to keep the gutsy little coquette at bay.
 
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