Many hummingbirds will soon be heading south! Learn some fun facts about hummingbirds—how much these tiny birds weigh, whether they can really see red, and what types you’ll see where you live. Did you know that hummers do not flap their wings? Enjoy these fascinating hummingbird facts.
What Is a Hummingbird’s Size?
These diminutive birds weigh only about 4 grams—or .141 ounce! That’s tiny! For comparison, a U.S. penny weighs 2.5 grams. The egg of a hummingbird weighs just 0.4 gram to 2.4 grams. A newly hatched bird is just 0.62 gram. However, when it’s time to migrate, hummers pack on the grams for the long trip—sometimes doubling their weight.
They are among the smallest birds, too, with most species measuring 3 to 5 inches long. The smallest bird, the bee hummingbird, is only 2 inches long—and weighs less than 2 grams.
Image: Anna’s hummingbird size compared to a penny.
How Fast Do Hummingbirds Beat Their Wings?
Hummingbirds, with their iridescent colors and fairly short wings, beat their wings as fast as 80 times per second! They do NOT flap their wings—they rotate them in a figure 8, which makes it even more remarkable! In fact, their name comes from the fact that they move their wings so fast that they make a humming noise. Hummingbirds can hover, stop instantly, and fly in different directions (even upside down) with exquisite control.
A ruby-throated hummingbird flying into a petunia flower. Credit: Matt Cuda/Getty
Where Do Hummingbirds Live?
Hummingbirds evolved in the equatorial tropics. In the spring, 21 species fly thousands of miles northward from Mexico, Costa Rica, and other southern places to visit the United States and Canada. In the fall, they return to their southern homes.
In North America, the greatest number and variety of hummingbirds can be found in western areas of the United States and as far north as Alaska. Only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is found east of the Mississippi. The birds also visit southern Canada, especially British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia.
How Far Do Hummingbirds Migrate?
Many of these birds make round-trip migration flights of more than 1,600 kilometers (995 miles)! Although hummingbirds usually weigh less than an ounce, these tiny birds have a lot of energy. When the wind blows in the direction in which they are flying, they can travel up to 50 mph.
Some fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico in spring and autumn. Cornell University scientists report that in preparation for such flights, they double their body weight with nectar and insects. They burn all additional weight when crossing the Gulf of Mexico. They consume 10 times per gram of muscle tissue than the most elite among human athletes, marathoners and cross-country skiers.
When hummingbirds are arriving in the north, they are sometimes confronted with unusually cold weather and will enter into a hypothermic torpor to survive.
How Fast Is a Hummingbird’s Heart Rate?
Hummingbirds have a very high metabolic rate, with heart rate of 1,260 beats per minute and breaths of 250 times per minute.
The long flights and wing-beating can make a hummingbird weary. As often as every 15 minutes, they look for a place to rest on trees and shrubs with small leaves. Particular plants include birch trees, butterfly bushes, and honey locusts. Don’t worry if you do not have these plants in your yard—your hummingbird might also rest on your feeder’s hanger.
Common Hummingbirds Types
Among the most common hummingbirds are the Ruby-throated, Rufous, and Anna’s Hummingbirds.
Only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird usually visits areas east of the Mississippi. The males have a distinctive ruby-red throat. Females are greenish, with a white throat and a notched tail.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird has a range which closely follows deciduous forests east of the 100th Meridian, according to 1982 research by R. I. Bertin. While most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico, some take a more leisurely route along the coast during spring migration to Mexico and Central America and back in the fall. Males arrive about a week before females during both migrations. Learn more about the attracting the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
A popular hummingbird in the western United States, it makes the longest migration—to northern Alaska—for a bird so small. They have been extensively studied for foraging behavior and pollen transfer. An orange gorget and rufous flanks identify this species. Researchers believe that Rufous Hummingbirds had a major influence on the speciation of flowers in California.
A resident of the Pacific and Southwest states, the male is identified by it’s red throat and crown. The female has a small red patch on its throat.
Do Hummingbirds See Red?
We have a bird feeder close to our deck and another one is hanging on my front porch. After we had noticed wasps around the feeder and very little hummingbird activity, a friend suggested that we paint feeder red. One weekend, we used some red spray paint and painted the feeder all red.
Like magic, the hummingbirds were back, and the wasps were gone! This isn’t exactly a true science experiment, but it made us investigate further.
It turns out that hummingbirds have a dense concentration of cones in their retinas. These cones contain pigments and oil droplets in shades of yellow to red, which seem to act like filters. The filters appear to heighten color sensitivity to red and also yellow, while muting colors such as blue.
What Do Hummingbirds Eat?
Hummingbirds live on flower nectar and insects, supplemented by food from hummingbird feeders.
Hummingbird Feeder Recipe
We make our own sugar water (1 part white sugar to 4 parts water) and usually have to fill the red backyard feeder twice a week.
Mix the sugar and water in a pot and heat on the stovetop enough to dissolve the sugar and allow to cool before putting into feeders.
The water itself does NOT need to be tinted. Hummingbirds have remarkable spatial memories and flutter before feeders before they are even hung in the spring.
Hummers will zoom towards any nectar-rich flowers. They do have a heightened sensitivity to brightly-hued red and yellow flowers but also they are speedy learners and will find nectar wherever they can.
The hummingbird is a prolific pollinator of flowers. Research shows that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds deposit 10 times as much pollen as bumblebees. So, to attract hummingbirds to your garden, make sure to include lots of plants known to attract hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds generally mate between March and July, with mid-May being the height of the breeding season.
These tiny flyers are especially vocal during the breeding season, when males interact with other males. Sounds vary from chittering to a humming sound caused by wing movement.
The female selects the nest site and builds the nest—the size of a thimble!—within a week. Common materials for nests are moss and lichen, plant down, spider silk, cotton fibers, feathers, and fur or hair rubbed off on leaves.
Two very small eggs hatch in about 14 days, and the young fledge in 3 weeks. Pairs are only together a few days or weeks. After mating, the male is on his own, leaving the female to incubate the eggs and feed the young mostly a diet of insects.
Image: An Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) sitting on her nest. Credit: PictureLake/Getty
What’s a Hummingbird’s Life Span?
The life expectancy of a hummingbird is from 3 to 6 years. The oldest surviving hummingbird was 9 years old. Females outlive males by several years, probably due to the males’ high energy costs of defending territories and the long spring and fall migrations.
The main predators of hummingbirds are swift-flying raptors, such as kestrels; other birds, such as blue jays; and some insects, such as the Praying Mantis. Occasionally, one is caught by a large fish as the bird sips nectar from a pond lily.