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Hummingbirds: small, but mighty impact

Hummingbirds are the smallest species of bird on the planet. Most know this just as easily as the opposing zoological trivia fact that the ostrich is the largest; however, there are approximately 350 different types of hummingbird - in contrast with the single common ostrich! This wide variety can be explained by the important role they play in our ecosystem and why on September 5th we celebrate National Hummingbird Day.

Entirely bound to the continents of the New World, from southern Alaska to the tip of Tierra Del Fuego in Chile, the hummingbirds’ average size is only 3-5 inches in length. This tiny frame, along with a typical wing beat up to 80 times per second, allows the bird to weave in and out of leaves and brush and stay hovered at their intended target, flowers. Specialized nectarivores, hummingbirds use their long, pointy bills to reach in and feed off nutrients within the blossoming bud. Much like how pollen grains stick onto the bodies of bumblebees, hummingbirds also spread the seed of their meals with their feathers and beaks as they fly from flower to flower.

Scientists believe that some plants use hummingbirds as pollinators because flying insects do not thrive well in rainy, lowland conditions. Each type of hummingbird is also specialized, meaning certain types prefer certain flowers. This explains why these birds coexist with each other and do not compete with other pollinators; they are tied to the ornithophilous flowers upon which they feed. The evolution and morphing of each individual species of hummingbird then, their beak length, beak curvature, and body mass are correlated with these specific traits of plants, length, curvature, and nectar volume. This allows for not only a wide variety of hummingbirds to exist, but for diverse vegetation to continue to thrive as well. 

Female purple-throated carib feeding at a flower. Creative Commons, Charles J Sharp.

High in the Caribbean mountains lies an example of this, the Heliconia bihai, a unique tropical flower with triangular bright red, orange, or fuchsia petals that perfectly matches the bill curvature of the purple-throated Carib hummingbird. This relationship of coexisting and coevolving aviation and plant life, that has been developing for over 22 million years, gives us cause to celebrate and study. To the hummingbird, for their role in diversifying our planet’s vegetation, by not only pollinating the same species, but for carrying pollen to varying species of flower and cross pollinating.  

This attachment of specific hummingbirds to a specific flower species also allows us to understand climate change and habitat destruction in a very precise way. With such a unique diet, as soon as the environment of a hummingbird is disrupted, so directly is that specific population. This interaction between hummingbirds and plants lets scientists view on a smaller scale how vulnerable the chains to our ecosystem are; if one species of hummingbird is eliminated, a variety of plant life soon will follow and subsequently, all those species taking refuge and resources in and from that vegetation as well. 

However, the hummingbird also gives us hope that the reverse is true. One species acting in good nature can positively affect those around it and cause them to flourish beyond their needs and create a more sustainable world for all.