Most people have seen hummingbirds at least once in their lifetime, but how much do you really know about them? Hummingbirds are an incredibly diverse group. They belong to the family Trochilidae, and includes the smallest birds in the world. There are over 325 different species of hummingbirds in the world, some weighing less than a penny and most measuring 3-5 inches long, although the giant hummingbird can grow to be 8 inches.
Not all hummingbirds migrate, but those who do can fly some pretty long distances. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird migrates about 2,000 miles from the eastern United States down to South America, including a nonstop 500 mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico. The longest recorded hummingbird migration was flown by a female Rufous Hummingbird, from Tallahassee Florida, to Chenega Bay Alaska, spanning more than 3,500 miles. Migrating in groups like other species of birds doesn’t give hummingbirds any advantages, as only one bird can eat at a flower at a time, therefore most hummingbirds travel solo. They are small and fast enough to avoid the notice of many predators along the migration path, but despite this more than half of hummingbirds do not survive their first year of migration. Winds blow them off course, or they lose the battle with older hummingbirds for dwindling food sources along the journey.
Male hummingbirds return to their preferred breeding grounds each year to claim territory before the females arrive. Once the females arrive, they pick a mate and start nesting. In general, the female does most of the work, building a tiny nest out of lichen and some mosses, and gluing it together with spider silk. When finished the nest is usually around 2 inches in diameter. The female lays two eggs, each about the size of a jelly bean, and will incubate them for anywhere from 12-21 days, depending on the species. Once the eggs hatch, nestlings eat every 20 minutes or so, as long as the female can find food in a relatively close proximity to the nest. Within two or three days of hatching, the nestling’s size doubles, and within about three weeks, they start testing their wings and feeding themselves.

Female Ruby throated hummingbird feeding (Photo by Michelle Hamilton)

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding  (Photo by Michelle Hamilton)

Hummingbirds are incredibly fast, reaching speeds up to 58 miles per hour in a dive. Researchers at UC Berkeley found that during the courtship display of the Anna’s Hummingbird, males reach a maximum velocity of over 385 body lengths per second. While this is technically slower than the Peregrine Falcon’s speed in a stoop, the falcon only attains maximum velocity of 200 body lengths per second, so relatively, the hummingbird takes the prize for world’s fastest vertebrate!
Hummingbird normal flight speed is around 30 miles per hour. In order to maintain this speed, hummingbirds beat their wings anywhere from 50-200 times per second, which creates the humming noise for which they are known. A hummingbird can take 200 breaths per minute, and their heart rate is around 1,200 beats per minute, compared to a human’s 60-100 beats per minute. Hummingbirds also eat fast too, taking 10-15 licks per second while feeding. They are also the only birds in the world that can fly backwards.
From the Giant Hummingbird, about 8 inches long, to the Bee Hummingbird, about 2 inches, the 325 species of hummingbirds make family Trochilidae one of the most amazing on Earth. Hummingbirds use their amazing flight skills to survive and keep one step ahead of predators such as cats, wasps, and spiders. I have had a hummingbird feeder in my garden for years, and every year I have been rewarded with a multitude of birds. Although I have not been lucky enough to spot a nest yet, I can assure you that when spring arrives my feeder will be out to greet these little travelers. I encourage you to do the same!