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The Hummingbird Description


Hummingbird General Features

Hummingbird profile

Their bills, accounting for a significant and prominent part of their profile, are needle-like, long, thin, straight, almost straight (decurved) or curved, and adapted to collect nectar. The top mandible overlaps the lower one, which fits snugly inside the upper one. Their wings are long but their humerus (arm) bones are short and stout, bodies are compact and, legs are small, and their feet are covered with bare skin rather than scales—characteristics shared with other apodiformes, the swifts. Their primary flight feathers are considerably longer than the secondary flight feathers. If not flying they are seen perching, sidling, or hopping, as the Andean hillstar hummingbird does[4], but not walking, as their weak legs have limited functionality.

With lustrous plumage, the males brighter than the females and the immature birds typically similar to the females, they are multi-coloured displaying all the rainbow colours, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, plus intermediate hues. They may be iridescent or reveal a different colour scheme by a changed observer viewpoint as their feathers, acting like prisms due to their structure, refract light into its constituent colours by variable degrees. However, some hummingbirds’ colouration are due to a combination of pigmentation and refraction, examples are the allen's hummingbird and the rufous hummingbirds[5] .

Their unique flying abilities further mark them out: they can fly upside down; backwards and hover, noticed especially when feeding; besides being able to fly forward, of which a substantial part is done in an erect stance[3]—other birds fly mostly flat, parallel to the horizon, their heads forward of their rump.

Hummingbirds vocalize with high pitched whistles and chirps and make a humming sound when flying: produced by their rapidly beating wings; in the case of the Annaˈs Hummingbird, in addition, a squeak is generated by the resonance of its flared tail when diving at a particular angle and speed during courtship displays[4]; and, during flight, the trailing long tail feathers of the Black-billed Streamertail resonates.

When perched they are less animated that other birds of comparable size—possibly an energy conservation mechanism and, in combination, as a result of with their weak legs.

Hummingbird Evolution

Despite the contrarian view that anatomical similarities between swifts and hummingbirds are the result of convergence from unrelated species[6], via natural selection, the prevailing explanation for the origin of Hummingbirds locates their separation from the swifts[4]and tree swifts, in Europe, 42 million years ago[7], during the Eocene Epoch—it was a time of moderate, cooling climate; flourishing archaic mammals, like the Creodonts and Uintatheres; the appearance of several "modern" mammal families; and along with the appearance of the first grasses. In Germany, at Wiesloch-Frauenweiler, south of Heidelberg, Germany, two 30-million year old hummingbird fossils were found in a clay pit[8; 9]. The ancestral hummingbird migrated through Asia to North America, via the Bering Strait to Alaska, without subsisters (survivors) left in the ancestral lands, and ended up in South America 22 million years ago[10], during the Miocene—a time of moderate climate, punctuated by ice ages; orogeny (the process of mountain formation) in the northern hemisphere; and familiar modern mammal and bird families are extant.

The Andes Mountains, providing ample ecological niches, had a role in hummingbird diversification to over 140 new species including the hermits, topazes, mangoes, emeralds, brilliants, coquettes, bees, mountain gems, and the Giant Hummingbird[10] . Subsequently, starting 12 million years ago, some species, first, the ancestors of the bee and mountain gem, then the mangoes and emeralds and others, reversed their movements to North America and, starting five million years ago, invaded the Caribbean islands, in several waves[10] .

Hummingbirds and plants have coevolved in a symbiotic relationship. Having nectar as a considerable part of their diet, hummingbirds are tied to ornithophilous flowers, i.e., bird loving flowers; in return, the hummingbirds pollinate the plants through their nectar feeding activities. As a result, some hummingbird species have grown to depend on a small variety of flowers and some flowers to a few hummingbird species; and, so, the hummingbirdˈs bill and flowersˈ corolla and sexual parts have co-adapted[4; 10] .

Hummingbird Taxonomy

Hummingbird Taxonomy

There is an estimated 330 species of hummingbirds, the second highest number of species of any bird family. Due to their flamboyance, the 19th Century naturalist John Gould gave many species their extant striking common names[3] . However, their customary taxonomic order is Apodiformes, along with swifts, and their family is Trochilidae (Hummingbirds), which is further divided into hermits (Phaethornithinae) and other typical hummingbirds (Trochilinae) sub families. But phylogeny (the science of the classification of organisms into groups based on similarities of origin or structure) suggests nine major clades (groups of typical hummingbirds, i.e., genera and individual species, sharing unique characteristics inherited from their last common ancestor), including hermits, topazes and jacobins, mangoes, coquettes, the brilliants, the giant hummingbird, mountain-gems, the bees and emeralds[11]

Hermits comprise 36 tropical and semitropical hummingbird species in six genera—Ramphodon, Eutoxeres, Glaucis, Threnetes, Anopetia, and Phaethornis[12] [13] . Most have dark faces and, typically, overall dull plumage, their upperparts usually show very little amounts of green or iridescence bronze; otherwise, their feathers are usually brownish, reddish, greyish or green. They possess elongated central rectrices (tail feathers), long decurved bills—suitable for their heliconia penchant—and relatively broad wings. Except for the green hermit (Phaethornis guy) and rufous-breasted hermit (Glaucis hirsutus), the sexes show little dimorphism, i.e., differentiated sexual forms, but for minute details of bill shape, tail length, and, intensity of colour or pattern[14]. The males of many hermit species form leks during courtship. Hermits are found from southern Mexico through Central America to South America.

Hummingbird Taxonomy

Compared to the hermits the typical hummingbird sub family, with around 294 species in eight clades, i.e., topazes and jacobins, mangoes, coquettes, the brilliants, the giant hummingbird, mountain-gems, the bee hummingbird, and emeralds, exhibits a wide range of colours, with iridescent feathers of metallic red, orange, green, and blue, sizes, shapes, and a variety of bills. In many species the sexes differ in size and colour: males are adorned with more iridescence, especially on the head, upperparts, and underparts, and extravagant decoration such as bright gorgets and crests, and elongated tail feathers; while the females are mostly demurely coloured with metallic green upperparts and white underneath with spangles[6; 15; 16].

Jointly, the topazes and jacobins represent the oldest evolutionary split from the rest of the hummingbirds[11] . Topazes are very colourful, chiefly iridescent golden and pink with dark hoods and green throats. Males have elongated tail feathers whilst the females have mainly green plumage. There are two species in this clade including the crimson topaz and the fiery topaz. Counterintuitively, the ruby topaz, which is a much smaller hummer, is not a member of the topaz clade but rather belongs to the mangoes clade[12] . Topazes are found in South America—Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela—and Trinidad and Tobago. They are habitants of subtropical or tropical humid lowland forests.

The white-necked jacobin and the black jacobin, tending large hummingbirds with all-white tails, make up the jacobins clade. They range from Mexico, North America, to Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, eastern Paraguay, southern Brazil, Argentina, in South America, and Trinidad and Tobago. It is an inhabitant of forests and is commonly seen at high levels above the canopy.

The mangoes clade is composed of striking species: the mango, violetears, and caribs genera, the ruby topaz hummingbird (Chrysolampis genus), horned sungem (Heliactin genus), and wedge-billed hummingbird (Schistes genus)[13]. The mango genus, Anathracothorax meaning "coal black chest", comprising 7 species—green-throated mango, green-breasted mango, black-throated mango, veraguan mango, Antillean mango, green mango and Jamaican mango—earned their names because of their habit of frequenting mango trees. The violetears (Colibri genus) comprise four species: brown violetear, green violetear, sparkling violetear, and white-vented violetear. They are equipped with short or medium black bills. Their tails are rounded. Males are distinguished by violet-blue patches that trail backwards and down from the eye and by sparkling throat patch. The females have smaller patches. The Caribs (Eulampis genus) comprise two species: green-throated carib and the purple-throated carib. They are structurally similar and both have black lower chest and belly. Their range overlap in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean but the green-throated caribˈs range extends North West to Puerto Rico.

The coquettes are 10 tiny species, amongst the smallest hummingbirds, none exceed 9cm or 3.5in; the males are extravagantly ornamented with colourful head crest, markings, and tail plumes whilst the females are more subdued. Coquettes have short straight bills and narrow wings. They range from Mexico, Central America to South America, and Trinidad and Tobago. Their habitat is varied from subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests, tropical moist montane forests, subtropical or tropical dry forests, heavily degraded former forest (secondary forest), plantations, cultivations, open country to gardens.

The brilliants clade is composed of flamboyant and plentiful Andean hummingbird species[12]. Generally, their bills are long and straight, and wings are narrow. In this clade are the brilliants (genus Heliodoxa), incas and starfrontlets (genus Coeligena), coronets (genus Boissonneaua), sunbeams (genus Aglaeactis), pufflegs (genus Eriocnemis and genus Haplophaedia), Sword-billed Hummingbird (binomial Ensifera ensifera), and Great Sapphirewing (binomial Pterophanes cyanopterus).

The brilliant genus, composed of 9 species[17], is typified by long pointed wings and blue centred on green throats[18]. With remarkably long straight bill, incas and starfrontlets together are 13 species of medium-sized hummingbirds. Incas dwell in the humid forest of the lower Andean elevations whilst the starfrontlets dwell near the tree line at higher elevations[19]. The coronets are made up of three species with straight black bills and contrasting outer tail feathers and rufous underwing coverts found from western Venezuela to southern Peru. The sunbeams are composed of four large species that have short straight bills, powerful long wings with sickle shaped outer primaries, slightly forked tail, partially feathered tarsi, breasts ornamented with tufts of lengthened plumes, and luminous backs. Pufflegs have a black bill and forked tails. The plumage of the male pufflegs is flamboyant green, coppery, or blue; the females are commonly a bit duller. They are distinguished by dense snowy leg puffs consisting of feather tufts with the exceptions of the black-thighed puffleg, with black puffs, and the buff-thighed puffleg, with beige puffs. They are found above 1000m in the Andes from Argentina in the South to Colombia and Venezuela in the North.

The unmistakable giant hummingbird (binomial Patagona gigas), having almost 21.5cm (8.5in) in wingspan and 18-24g (6/10-8/10oz) in weight, again, is the largest hummingbird[3; 20]. Its wing beats are as slow as 12 per second. Its plumage is considered comparatively dull and unattractive. It is found above 1,500 metres (4,921 ft.) in the Andes from Colombia to Chile and Argentina[21] .

The mountain gems (typical mountain gems, Lampornis and Oreopyra genera, and Heliomaster, Panterpe, Eugenes, Lamprolaima, Hylonympha, and Sternoclyta genara) are an estimated 17 species[12] . The typical gems are medium to large sized (10-13cm) hummingbirds with somewhat short decurved black bills. The archetype males have green upperparts and sport brightly coloured throats, which is lacklustre on the females. The female plumage of some species differs meaningfully from the males. They range from south-western United Stated to the Isthmus of Panama.

The bees are mostly small hummingbirds, a few medium sized, and typically, with some exceptions, with long, straight, and, slender bills and upperparts with some variation of green. Males characteristically have well-developed iridescent gorgets. They number around 36 from several genera: Rhodopis, Myrtis, Eulidia, Thaumastura, Myrmia, Microstilbon, Chaetocercus, Tilmatura, Calliphlox, Doricha, Calothorax, Archilochus, Mellisuga, Calypte, Atthis, and Selasphorus[11;12] . Included among this group are black-chinned hummingbird, ruby-throated hummingbird, purple-collared woodstar, white-bellied woodstar, magenta-throated woodstar, purple-throated woodstar, anna's hummingbird, costa's hummingbird, oasis hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird, volcano hummingbird, rufous hummingbird, calliope hummingbird, the bee hummingbird, (Mellisuga helenae), around 2 inches, etc. At least four of the species are migratory and their natural range usually extends from western South America, through Central America and western North America, although the ruby-throated hummingbirdˈs range includes eastern North America and Central America and the bee hummingbirdˈs is resident on the island of Cuba[1] .

In the emerald clade are emeralds (genus Chlorostilbon), genus Amazilia, sabrewings (genus Campylopterus), sapphires (genus Chlorestes, genus Chrysuronia, genus Hylocharis, and genus Pterophanes), woodnymphs (genus Thalurania), amongst others—well over 100 species[12]. The species of the emerald genus number 17[17] and the males are iridescent green, gilded-green, or bluish-green, and, some have blue tails or throats; females are typified by grey-white underparts and streaks behind the eyes. The Amazilia consist of over 30 species of medium size, iridescent green plumage, moderate length, and slightly decurved bills birds. Sabrewings are large hummingbirds, around 12-15cm, with robust slightly decurved black bills. The male Sabrewing two outermost primary feathers are thick, flat, and bent bearing resemblance to sabres. Woodnymphs have nearly straight black bills. The male Woodnymphs are green and purple, and, the females green with incomplete whitish underparts and white-tipped tails. Hummingbirds of the emerald clade are distributed across North and South America and the Caribbean.

Hummingbird Species Identification

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hummingbird species can be discerned by their appearance, gender, maturity, behavior, vocals, and territory. Plumage colour, tufts, tassels, streamers, bill shape, tail shape, wing shape, and size all provide a wide permutation on their mien. The plumage colour on the throat is one of the key markers, along with circles and streaks around the eyes; but the combination of crown, back, chest, and belly colour, tail spots, and bands are also useful in their identification. This variation in look is compounded by the fact that some species display gender dimorphism, with males more resplendent than the females, to retell, hermits are an exception to this rule showing little gender differences. Also, the immature birds resemble the adult female in the dimorphic species.

For example, the ruby-throated hummingbird has a long straight, and slender bill; the adult male ruby-throated hummingbird, smaller than the female, has an iridescent throat patch (gorget); the female ruby-throated hummingbird has green banded outer retrices on a notched tail; and the immature male resembles the adult female. Its call is a mix of brief squeaks followed by groups of rapid staccato chirps.The Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which may inexplicably show up, is migratory and winters in Central America and southern Florida, but spends the rest of its time in the mid-west and the north-eastern United States, and southern Canada.

Rufous-breasted Hermit

Whilst, the sexes of the rufous-breasted hermit are similar, except for yellow streaking on the malesˈ upper mandible and femalesˈ slightly duller colours below, it brandishes a long, thin, and pronounced decurved bill with a yellow lower mandible and black upper one, has a brownish head, bronze-green upperparts, and brownish-red underparts, a rounded white tipped tail with rufous outer feathers, and green central feathers. The immature rufous-breasted hermit is duller all over with beige fringes. The male is known to be aggressive and inquisitive, and, unlike other hummers help to build and defend the nest. Its notable call is a series of 8 to 9 chirps, rising and falling in pitch, and, amplitude and almost legato like. Its range is Central and South America, Trinidad and Tobago, and Grenada.

Hummingbirds, Sunbirds, and Honeyeaters

Hummingbirds share some superficial features, ecology, and behavioural patterns, due to convergent evolution, with sunbirds[22], about 132 species in 15 genera, and honeyeaters, in total 182 species in 42 genera. They are all small birds with extended, straight or down curved bills and extensible, grooved or cylindrical tongues tipped with arrays of filaments that facilitate the drawing of nectar, which is part of their diet—they are important pollinators for select flowers. Also like hummingbirds, sunbirds, and honeyeaters supplement their diet by eating insects and spiders.

Ranging in size from 5 to 45 grams, some sunbirds, like hummingbirds, are capable of fast, direct flight and the ability to hover—some species hover while feeding[22]. The sunbird, just like hummingbirds, makes generous use of spider web in the construction of their nests—usually like a small bag, enclosed and suspended from thin branches. Sunbirds show strong sexual dimorphism with the males accoutered in brilliant iridescent plumage, again just like the typical hummingbirds, and the males are equipped with longer tails than the females in many species. The sunbirdsˈ range is Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the tip of Northern Australia.

Honeyeaters are small to medium sized birds. The smaller species are able to hover like hummingbirds[22] to feed on nectar. They are present in Australasia (Australia and New Zealand, and neighbouring islands in the South Pacific, as far east as Samoa and Tonga), New Guinea, and the islands north of New Guinea, but are more common in Australia and New Guinea.

Hummingbird, Sunbird and Honeyeater Comparison Gallery

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Works Cited

1. Bee Hummingbird - (Mellisuga helenae). Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. [Online] 2010. [Cited: 5 September 2014.]

2. GLICK, A. "Mellisuga helenae". Animal Diversity Web (ADW). [Online] 2002. [Cited: 11 September 2014.]

3. hummingbird (bird). Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. [Online] 10 March 2014. [Cited: 5 September 2014.]

4. PRUM, Ann Johnson. Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air. [prod.] Ann Johnson Prum. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS): Nature, 2009.

5. Journey North Hummingbirds. Journey North ( [Online] [Cited: 6 September 2014.]

6. PARKES, Kenneth C. apodiform (bird). Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online] 30 May 2006. [Cited: 6 September 2014.]

7. Hummingbird diversity still booming. nature International Weekly Journal of Science. [Online] 03 April 2014. [Cited: 5 September 2014.]

8. FOUNTAIN, Henry. They Hummed in Europe, Too - New York Times. The New York Times. [Online] 11 May 2004. [Cited: 7 September 2014.]

9. Oldest hummingbird fossils found. BBC News. [Online] 6 May 2004. [Cited: 7 September 2014.]

10. SANDERS, Robert. Hummingbird evolution soared after they invaded South America 22 million years ago. UC Berkley News Center. [Online] 3 April 2014. [Cited: 2 May 2014.]

11. MCGUIRE, Jimmy A., Christopher C. WITT, Douglas L. ALTSHULER, and J. V. REMSEN, JR. Phylogenetic Systematics and Biogeography of Hummingbirds: Bayesian and Maximum Likelihood Analyses of Partitioned Data and Selection of an Appropriate Partitioning Strategy. Systematic Biology. [Online] 5 February 2007. [Cited: 6 March 2014.] I076-836X.

12. BOYD, John H., III. TiF Checklist: METAVES III. John H. Boyd III. [Online] John H. Boyd III, 15 May 2014. [Cited: 9 September 2014.]

13. MCGUIRE, Jimmy A., Christopher C. WITT, J. V. REMSEN Jr, R. DUDLEY, Douglas L. ALTSHULER. Witt Lab. C. Witt. [Online] 5 June 2008. [Cited: 9 September 2014.]

14. TEMELES, Ethan J., Jill S. MILLER, and Joanna L. RIFKIN. Evolution of sexual dimorphism in bill size and shape of hermit hummingbirds (Phaethornithinae): a role for ecological causation. National Center for Biotechnology Information - US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. [Online] 10 April 2010. [Cited: 09 September 2014.]

15. CAMFIELD, A. Trochilidae. Animal Diversity Web (ADW). [Online] 2004. [Cited: 9 September 2014.]

16. GOULD, John, F.R.S. A monograph of the Trochilidæ, or family of humming-birds: Gould, John, 1804-1881. Internet Archive. [Online] 1861. [Cited: 9 September 2014.]

17. MYERS, P., R. ESPINOSA, C. S. PARR, T. JONES, G. S. HAMMOND and T. A. DEWEY. Chlorostilbon: CLASSIFICATION. The Animal Diversity Web (ADW). [Online] Regents of the University of Michigan, 2014.

18. SCHULENBERG, Thomas S., Dennis ARENDT, and Carolyn W. SEDGWICK. Fawn-breasted Brilliant (Heliodoxa rubinoides). Neotropical Birds (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. [Online] 2013. [Cited: 13 September 2014.]

19. PARRA, Juan Luis, J.V. REMSEN Jr., Mauricio ALVAREZ-REBOLLEDO, Jimmy A. MCGUIRE. Molecular phylogenetics of the hummingbird genus Coeligena. The LSU Museum of Natural Science. [Online] 2009. [Cited: 13 September 2014.]

20. WITT, Christopher C., and Maria Joze FERNANDEZ. Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas). Cornell Lab of Ornithology. [Online] Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2011. [Cited: 12 September 2014.]

21. HENRIK, Wehrde, von. The Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas) in the Mountains of Central Argentina and a Climatic Envelope. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. [Online] The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 2008. [Cited: 12 September 2014.]

22. FLEMING, Theodore H., Nathan MUCHHALA. Index of /muchhala. Department of Biology, University of Miami. [Online] 2007. [Cited: 12 September 2014.]

Author: Richard Thomas has been a wildlife enthusiast and birdwatcher since his scouting days, in his youth, at Queenˈs Royal College, Trinidad and Tobago. Whence, he took particular pleasure in hiking nature trails and observing and noting flora and fauna, principally birds. He developed a specific interest in hummingbirds because of their flying/hovering abilities, resplendent colours and enchanting nature. His birdwatcher status matured to birder over fifteen years ago, when he began making longer and closer bird observations; making bird trips (whether it be raptor watching at Cape May, New Jersey or Hummingbird and other tropical birds observations at Chaguaramas or Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad and Tobago); referring to field guides; identifying birds; noting their calls; keeping records (descriptions, locations, calls, &c.,) some of which were used on this website); reviewing scholarly articles and wildlife and bird magazines about hummingbirds and other birds; scouring the internet for bird related information; creating electronic field trip templates and checklists; and creating a website focused on Caribbean hummingbirds.

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