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The Remarkable Flight Of The Hummingbird

Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are remarkable creatures; they are among the smallest known avian species, the largest measuring just to 5 inches across (easy to fit into the palm of your hand). The birds are so-called because of the humming sound generated by their beating wings, which flap at high frequencies and so fast they have the highest metabolism of any animal. They compensate for this when they rest by entering a near-state of hibernation. The birds are also beautiful to look at, coming in a range of colours.

Hummingbirds in the United States migrate south to Central America and Cuba. The exact route they take is a mystery, but they cover thousands of kilometres – an impressive feat for such tiny creatures. In fact, some birds can fly 2,000 kilometers if the wind is blowing in a favourable direction.

To examine the flight further, Theodore Zenzal Jr. and Frank Moore of the University of Southern Mississippi intercepted ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Here the birds were weighed and measured, and then released. Prior to release, they were tagged and tracked using radio telemetry.

It was found that older birds arrived at the refuge earlier and stayed for shorter times than younger birds. These birds had more fat that could fuel a long voyage. It was noted that for these most hardy of the hummingbirds, they could fly 2,260 kilometers on average without stopping for food. However, the largest of the birds could fly for a massive 4,000 kilometers. By assessing their weight against the tracked flight, the researchers were able to assess the distance a bird could fly by its shape and weight ratio.

The birds achieve this impressive feat by storing up huge fat deposits relative to the size of the bird. The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is one such place where hummingbirds congregate to feed prior to undertaking the journey.

The study of the flight of the hummingbird has been published in the journal The Auk. The paper is titled “Stopover biology of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) during autumn migration”.

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.