Source: Nature: "Extraordinary Birds"
Major corporate support for the Nature collection was provided by Canon U.S.A. and SC Johnson. Additional support was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the nation’s public television stations.
The featherweights of the bird world, hummingbirds are native to South America, where flowers are abundant and in bloom year round. There are over 300 species of hummingbirds with varying tails, beaks, head plumes, and colorations. This video segment from Nature introduces viewers to several species of hummingbirds.
As hummingbirds and other bird species evolved over time, they developed a variety of traits and skills beneficial to both the birds themselves and to the continuation of their species. The vast array of hummingbird species is an example of the result of these evolutionary processes. Certain birds have developed beaks allowing them to feed at particular flowers, others have cultivated brightly colored plumage, and yet others are known for the exceptional skills at navigation. Many highly skilled bird behaviors are innate - certain bird species are born with these abilities, as is the case of the homing pigeon’s innate homing ability. Scientists often do not know how these skills have been acquired in the population, except to note that these traits became advantageous for the birds as their populations evolved in their respective environments.
Only a hummingbird can truly hover in still air. Its thin, stiff wings simply rotate at the shoulder, creating lift not by their shape and contour but by their motion. The hummingbird is the helicopter to the Peregrine’s F-16.
This virtuosity in the air, and almost everything else about hummingbirds, is due to the fact that they live on nectar. Their flying skills allow them to feed in mid-air directly in front of delicately waving blossoms. In return for their food, the birds pollinate the plants.
Some hummingbirds’ bills are a perfect match for the shape of their favorite flower.
The sicklebilled’s strangely curved beak is designed to feed only on the curved flowers of the Heliconia.
The Datura plant is another exclusive partner. It’s enormous six to eight inch flowers are too deep for all hummingbirds except one – the sword-billed. The sword-billed is the only bird whose beak is actually longer than its body.
Hummingbirds that aren’t equipped with special beaks are often adorned with dazzling colors.
The sapphire-fronted emerald, the tourmaline sunangel, the ruby topaz – their names alone attest to their jewel like radiance.
The secret is in the structure of their feathers. Microscopic prisms inside each feather split, refract, and reflect different wavelengths. The feathers appear lit from within, as though hummingbirds were made of light.
These flashes of brilliance are all about protecting their patch of flowers. Hummingbirds use them to signal ownership of prized territories, taking on rivals in a clash of color.
But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about hummingbirds is the most obvious – their size. They are masters of miniaturization. And in their case, smaller also means faster. An average sized hummer must beat its wings 25 times a second in order to produce the lift it needs to stay in the air.
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