My life might be considered rather dull by some, but the first hummingbird sighting of the year is always a great thrill for me. As the season progresses and more flowers come into bloom, it is a daily pleasure to watch the hummingbirds moving from blossom to blossom, taking their sips of nectar as we sip our morning coffee in the sunshine.
Hummingbirds are fascinating creatures, unique in many ways among bird species and besting many statistics in the animal world at large. Hummingbirds are among the smallest of the birds and are the only birds that can fly backwards. They can hover in mid-air by flapping their wings 12 to 90 times per second. They can fly at speeds more than 34 miles (54 kilometers) per hour and can fly many hundreds of miles during migration. Hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any animal. Their heart rates have been measured as high as 1,260 beats per minute and yet they have been known to live as long as 12 years.
Hummingbirds eat more than their own weight in nectar every day, and will reject flowers with low-sugar nectar in favour of sweeter sips. They also prefer flowers in shades of red, orange and bright pink over flowers with cooler colours. To add protein to their diets, hummingbirds eat insects and small spiders.
The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest living bird. At 2 inches long and weighing 63 one-thousandths of an ounce, this bird is scarcely larger than a bee.
Many of the Hummingbird species have bright plumage with exotic colouration. In many species, the coloring does not come from pigmentation in the feather structure, but instead from prism-like cells within the top layers of the feathers. When light hits these cells, it is split into wavelengths that reflect to the observer in varying degrees of intensity. The Hummingbird wing structure acts as a diffraction grating. The result is that, merely by shifting position, a muted-looking bird will suddenly become fiery red or vivid green. However, not all hummingbird colors are due to the prism feather structure. The rusty browns of Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbirds come from pigmentation. Iridescent hummingbird colors actually result from a combination of refraction and pigmentation, since the diffraction structures themselves are made of melanin, a pigment.
Here on Vancouver Island, the most common hummingbird is the Rufous Hummingbird. Rufous has the longest migration path of any hummingbird, travelling 2,000 miles between their winter homes in Mexico and their breeding ground in the Pacific Northwest. They spend most of the year in migration. Their journey follows the “Pacific Flyway” or “Floral Highway” through the mountains and deserts of the Pacific West Coast. The pace of migration is determined by the blooming times of the flowers favoured by the hummingbirds. This image of Rufous Hummingbirds was taken from Birds of Coastal British Columbia by Nancy Baron and John Acorn. This book tell us that in “Haida legends hummingbirds brought joy and healing.”
The Pentagon is developing a robot hummingbird, or “hummingbird drone”. These tiny, artificial birds can flap their wings and fly, climbing and descending vertically, moving sideways, forward and backward. They can rotate in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Inside the “bird” is a tiny video camera and an audio recorder. A maple leaf seed drone and insect drones are also in the works.
Controlled remotely, the hummingbird drone is an intriguing technological development. I’m sure any child would be thrilled to find such a delightful new toy under the Christmas tree. But this is no toy: the device can be used to locate people inside buildings toppled by earthquakes and could be used by police officers and firefighters. The most obvious use for the drone is, of course, intelligence gathering. The “spy bots” currently in development are clumsy and look like machines, but they are improving rapidly. It is not likely that the end product of this research will be a hummingbird, since these birds are only found in North, Central and South America and would excite quite a lot of interest anywhere else. A sparrow would be a better choice.
Personally, I find this new technology rather sinister. If a lifelike hummingbird can be manufactured and set aloft, it upsets the relationship I believe I have with nature. Aside from the occasional bee or wasp sting or the appearance of a flower-munching deer, my experience of nature is benevolent. It is peaceful, beautiful and non-threatening. My forays into nature are most often solitary and, yes, private. I don’t think my daily life would be of enough interest for anyone to call in the spy bots (although there’s always the possibility of mistaken identity). It’s just the idea of the thing: me watching the bird, the bird watching me, the bird sending its findings back “home”. It’s creepy.