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Hummingbirds: The tiny, mighty and amazing things they do

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A look at the tiny and mighty migrators buzzing around our flowers.

There are more than 350 different species of hummingbirds across the Americas.

Their little bodies have big appetites and they eat about half their body weight a day.

They drink nectar from flowers and sugar water from feeders. They also sip tree sap and eat small insects, when flowers are hard to find.


Hummingbirds have superb eyesight. They see color better than humans, with their vision extending into the ultraviolet spectrum.

Their hearts pump about 1,200 beats per minute. Their normal body temperature is higher than 100 degrees.

They sleep, but can also go into what’s called torpor, a sleep-like state with slower metabolism when migrating.

Scientists did not believe they had a sense of smell until a 2021 UC Riverside study proved otherwise.


Christopher Clark, a professor at UC Riverside’s Department of Evolution, Ecology and Oranismal Biology, studies hummingbird flight.

“Most populations are doing fine. Most but not all,” Clark said. “In Southern California, the Calliope Hummingbirds used to breed in the San Gabriels and the San Jacintos, but in recent decades they have disappeared, and nearly disappeared from the San Bernardinos. I suspect climate change. There are still lots of them further north in the Sierras. Worldwide there are a handful of critically endangered species. On the flip side, in Southern California, Allen’s Hummingbird population continues to grow very rapidly, and expanding into new areas, currently near Lancaster and east of San Diego. Allen’s love eucalyptus and garden plants (and feeders).”

Feeders are fine

Red plastic feeders filled with sugar water attract the birds. If you are using a feeder, clean it regularly and protect it from ants, bees and other uninvited visitors.

One part refined sugar four parts water.

Boil, then let it cool and fill the feeder.


Hummingbird nests are tiny, about the width of a half dollar and the eggs are jelly bean size. Nests are made from thistle or dandelion down and held together with spider silk and pine sap. Mothers have no more than two eggs at a time and can have four clutches a year. Males are very territorial and will fight to the death.

Hummingbirds are protected by state and federal laws. It is illegal to possess a hummingbird. If you find an injured hummingbird, go to ifoundahummingbird.com immediately.

Flight like no other

The hummingbird is the only bird that can hover. It can flap its wings more than 50 times a second depending on the species. It can fly backwards and the Han species can fly sideways.

Most birds produce lift only when they flap their wings downwards, but hummingbirds can do so on the upstroke too by inverting their wings.

Their wings move in a figure-eight pattern, which allows them to maneuver with ease.

They can fly 35 mph in level flight and hit 60 mph in a dive.


Hummingbirds are solitary migrants. You won’t see them traveling in flocks.

The Rufous hummingbird’s migration is the longest. It makes a 3,900-mile journey from its northern breeding grounds in Alaska to where it winters in Mexico.

At just over three inches long, its trip from Alaska to Mexico is equivalent to 78,470,000 body lengths. In comparison, the 13-inch-long Arctic Tern’s one-way flight of about 11,185 miles is only 51,430,000 body lengths.

Research shows they travel about 20 miles a day but some can travel 500 miles when migrating.

Native plants that attract hummingbirds

Recommended by the California Native Plant Society:

ManzinitasChaparral currantFuchsia-flowered gooseberryBlack sageSticky monkeyflowerLivforeverCoyote mintScarlet buglerCalifornia fuchsiaScarlet monkeyflowerWestern Columbine


All photos are from SCNG Archives.

Sources: National Audubon Society, Smithsonian, Cornell University, Nature.com, journeynorth.org, California Native Plant Society, National Park Service; U.S. Forest Service , Christopher Clark UC Riverside, University of Texas at Austin

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