Humming Along
June 20, 2014 9:35 PM   Subscribe

Hummingbirds have been slow to give up their secrets, but slowly, we've learned to understand them.
Thanks to a certain resemblance to an insect, the hummingbird is known in French as “oiseau mouche” (fly bird). Its fondness for the calyxes of blossoms has inspired the Portuguese names “beija flor” (flower kisser) and “chupa flor” (flower sucker), and the related Spanish “pica flor” (flower poker). In other languages, hummingbirds are known as “Kolibri,” a word likely of Caribbean origin, or Trochilidae, their scientific name (which was provided by Carl Linnaeus and, curiously, seems to relate to a different bird — a type of kinglet called “trochilus” by the ancient Greeks). These inventive names reflect the wonder and enigma that surrounds these creatures and the peculiar abilities and proclivities that set them apart from other birds.
posted by the man of twists and turns (37 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I found it unsettling and that the concluding paragraph talked about mechanized goal oriented hummingbirds. One wonders how the entry on humanity will end.
posted by tychotesla at 9:51 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hummingbirds were a rarity where I grew up but to my considerable surprise they're quite common in the islands of southeast Alaska where I currently live.

We mostly get one variety (rufous) but they're amazing creatures: fearless, fiercely combative, shockingly swift and maneuverable, and capable of migrating 2,000 miles. During the summertime, when I sit out on my deck, they dart around, heedless of my presence, feeding on the flowers I grow in containers. They routinely come close enough for me to feel the wash from their wings as they hover above my head sipping from the nasturtium boxes that hang from the railing.

The bird that excites most of the tourists who visit here is the bald eagle, which is a shame because really, though they are beautiful to watch, in reality eagles are the dumb jocks of the bird world; they get admiration for their looks and power but they have no personality. Only 5% of a hummingbird is made of matter; the remaining 95% is made of attitude. In my book they're way more interesting.
posted by Nerd of the North at 9:55 PM on June 20, 2014 [36 favorites]

Calyxes? Corollas, surely.
posted by agentofselection at 9:56 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

In Nahuatl they're called "huitzil" which is an onamatopoeia for the sound they make when they zoom by you!
posted by Tesseractive at 10:01 PM on June 20, 2014 [13 favorites]

They seem so fragile but are so insanely durable and efficient. Ruby-Throated hummingbirds from the wiki:

"As part of their spring migration, portions of the population fly from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico across the Gulf of Mexico, arriving first in Florida and Louisiana. This feat is impressive, as a 800 km (500 mi), non-stop flight over water would seemingly require a caloric energy that far exceeds an adult hummingbird's body weight of 3 g (0.11 oz). However, researchers discovered the tiny birds can double their fat mass to approximately one gram in preparation for their Gulf crossing, then expend the entire calorie reserve from fat during the 20 hour non-stop crossing when food and water are unavailable."

For an averagel sized human to perform a proportional feat they would have to fly 18,000 miles.


Without eating or drinking.
posted by vapidave at 10:29 PM on June 20, 2014 [13 favorites]

I've been surprised to see how territorial they are. Aerial dogfights in the back yard every day, zipping back and forth.
posted by curious nu at 10:55 PM on June 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

... but slowly, we've learned to understand them.

Despite the fact that they don't know the words? Impressive!
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:22 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Watch a few hummingbirds around a hummingbird feeder once in a while and learn. All of that cuteness and color falls like pin feathers in the breeze. Hummingbirds are as territorial and vicious as Al Swearingen, and when hummingbirds tussle, the rest of us are wise to tremble beneath their frequent wing beats.
posted by notyou at 11:34 PM on June 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

The little boogers are smart too. They'll peer in the window if I forget to fill the feeder. The first time I saw one do this, I was sure it was a coincidence. But no, I've only ever seen them do this when it's empty.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:04 AM on June 21, 2014

Our hummingbirds don't peer at us -- they just guilt-trip us by going up to the empty feeders and then morosely buzzing away.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:12 AM on June 21, 2014

I bought a hanging fuchsia this year that I thought would be a big hit with the hummingbirds, but it turns out it's the provence lavender they're nuts for. There are four pots on the deck and they go from one to the next to the next to the next and then if they have an extra minute or the momentum gets the best of them they make a cursory stop at the fuchsia hanging by the door.

But with the lavender, they stop for every. single. flower. for each of the four pots.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:41 AM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Interesting to learn what other cultures call the Hyper-Freeze Bird.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:58 AM on June 21, 2014

I recall being amazed to discover that the little things chirp. And they actually do perch on limbs of trees and sit still.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:13 AM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

All birds start as hummingbirds until they learn the words to their songs.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:09 AM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

hummingbird audio
posted by bukvich at 6:04 AM on June 21, 2014

One wonders how the entry on humanity will end.

Skynet will probably make it very inspiring.
posted by localroger at 6:39 AM on June 21, 2014

>>Thanks to a certain resemblance to an insect, the hummingbird is known in French as “oiseau mouche” (fly bird)
I don't speak French, so perhaps someone can explain to me how “oiseau mouche” (fly bird) connects to an insect.
posted by falsedmitri at 8:23 AM on June 21, 2014

"La mouche" refers to the insect, not the verb to fly (voler). When flying, hummingbirds look more like flies, or at least are small and kind of incomprehensible, than birds. I always thought it's kind of a word joke. And le colibri is the "real" name of the bird.

Also, my impression of Quebecois French is that is has rather different boundaries for categories of animals. For example, une bibitte (a little monster?) is sort of equivalent to "bug" in English, but appears to include small animals like mice and hummingbirds (according to my wife, anyway).
posted by sneebler at 8:47 AM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The "chirp" made by a male Anna's hummingbird at the bottom of its territorial display is made by its tail, not its vocal chords.

One time I was on a walk and stopped on the trail to look at something, and didn't realize I was directly below the spot an Anna's had picked for his display. He "popped" about a foot over my head an I nearly leapt out of my skin. I hope he had a good laugh about it.
posted by rtha at 8:50 AM on June 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Thanks rtha! I was wondering how they made that sound.
posted by sneebler at 8:51 AM on June 21, 2014

"Kolibri" is the name of a videogame for the (ill-fated) Sega 32X with a hummingbird protagonist, so if you can't wait for your own Nano Hummingbird here's a virtual hummingbird in the meantime.
posted by Corinth at 8:58 AM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I like to imagine that to hummingbirds we seem like plants because we are so slow.
posted by srboisvert at 10:45 AM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I wear a red shirt in the backyard I am always inspected very carefully by hummingbirds (like, hovering within a foot of me carefully). They are disappointed when I turn out to not be food.
posted by rtha at 10:47 AM on June 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

posted by humboldt32 at 10:51 AM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Once at a family Christmas a child found a rubythroat that had suffered a broken wing. I ended up with it in my hand. It weighed less than a penny. I do not know the eventual fate of the bird, although I assume it passed away.

Another winter day in a different location, an unusually hard freeze had hit overnight and I stepped out on the deck to note that our feeder had frozen solid. As I looked at it absently I noticed at least three different hummingbirds approach it and try to feed. It struck me that the freeze had removed all their food sources overnight and that I should refill the feeder so that they would at least get some food before it froze again.

When I brought it out again, I was mobbed by at least half-a-dozen birds, all squabbling furiously. They bounced off my chest and my face and my arm. Once I got the feeder hung I went and got my camera. They were so hungry they literally did not care how close I was to them. Amazing experience.
posted by mwhybark at 10:55 AM on June 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

In Turkish they are called "arıkuşu" ("beebird") because, well, obvious.
posted by seyirci at 11:39 AM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I used to have a hummingbird feeder hanging from a wire over my deck in western Massachusetts. One year in the spring I forgot to hang it before the birds arrived. I was out there doing something when a hummingbird showed up and began buzzing around the precise spot in mid-air where the feeder had been the previous summer. It had migrated to Central America and back and knew exactly where the food was supposed to be.
posted by beagle at 12:13 PM on June 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I redid my backyard a few years ago, I made it a priority to make it hummingbird friendly. I have a waterfall with large shallow pools and ledge stones, lavender and kangaroo paws around it.

There are very few things I take as much pure pleasure in as the opportunity to sit with my morning coffee and watch the Anna's dive bomb the falls, hit the plants and bathe themselves in the shallow pools and ledge stones.
posted by drewbage1847 at 5:47 PM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hummingbirds are, for me, those signs from the universe that Paulo Coelho talks about in The Alchemist. Whenever I see one, it's usually during times of strife or sadness, and they remind me to take smaller bites and persevere so I can go further and further to wherever I'm headed. I had no idea there were so many varieties.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:03 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

And if that wasn't confusing enough, there's the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, which closely resembles a hummingbird! If evolution has a purpose, it's producing a never-ending array of unusual critters.
posted by sneebler at 6:09 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Growing up, our cat caught a few hummingbirds in my mom's garden (which she felt guilty about, though she'd have been thrilled if he got a squirrel) ... and it made me wonder how something so vulnerable could have emerged from natural selection. For any natural predator they're basically little eye-catching floating appetizers who hover in place a few feet off the ground, usually with flowers nearby for extra mealtime ambience.
posted by neat graffitist at 7:50 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I once heard an interview on public radio with an ornithologist who said that if hummingbirds could speak, probably 90-95% of what they say would be expletives. Seriously. These are some attitudinal little creatures.

Having wistful memories of my mom, who used to greet hummingbirds with a cheerful "Hi, li'l fuckhead!" She loved refilling the feeder as they dive-bombed her.
posted by Lexica at 9:22 PM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was so excited about the hummingbird post because a colleague of mine studies hummingbird feeding and has basically overturned decades of research that assumed that they rely on capillary action. Their tongues actually have four different segments that each function to maximize the amount of nectar they can get out of each "lick" into a flower. I showed him this post and asked him what I should tell all of you.

Very cool!!! You can tell them that some hummers even have weapons!! Check the second the last project here:

Hope this doesn't count as a self-link somehow -- but I think that Metafilter would really appreciate Dr. Rico Guevara's videos!
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 12:27 PM on June 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

A ruby-throated hummingbird has become territorial; whenever another hummingbird comes up to my feeder, he swoops in & chases them off.

Pro birdwatchers in hummer-rich territory often hang multiple feeders so that a single aggressive bird can't keep them all patrolled. I've been invited to yard watches where there were a dozen feeders so that we had a good chance to see all the locally available species despite the territoriality.
posted by localroger at 1:16 PM on June 22, 2014

For the record, above I calculated length and not mass. For you, supposing you are 160 pounds and a largish ruby-throated humming bird your equivalent semi-annual commute would be 1,828,500 miles.

Some eggs.
posted by vapidave at 4:35 AM on June 26, 2014

Coincidentally, I came across this earlier today: I saved a freakin' hummingbird!
posted by Lexica at 4:20 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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