Wildly Successful: Lessons from the Hummingbird

By Jim Knox

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. When it comes to camouflage and mimicry, imitation also confers a huge survival benefit. Yet, the wild world—like certain commodities markets—rewards rule-breaking risk-takers too. Stoking up on nectar like rocket fuel, and consuming half their weight daily, hummingbirds do what other birds cannot—fly forward and backward, completely vertical and even upside down! When it comes to wildly successful nonconformists, there are few bolder than our native Ruby-throated hummingbird. Like its hummingbird relatives, this 1/8th ounce lightweight is a powerhouse, chasing off creatures more than ten times its size and one hundred times its weight to protect its nestlings. The Ruby-throat goes one step beyond that. These “flying jewels”, the weight of a penny, achieve a migration marathon which may include a 1,300 mile non-stop flight over the Gulf of Mexico enroute to more hospitable winter climes on the Yucatan Peninsula! How does this avian superhero defy conformity to thrive as one of the most powerful creatures per ounce on the planet? How does it achieve balance in a world of constant flux, and how can we emulate this micro-beast to achieve our own balance while conquering life’s obstacles which are far larger than ourselves?

Such astounding creatures warrant a closer look. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is one of just 343 known hummingbird species on our planet. This nonconformist bird family represents just 3% of the world’s roughly 10,000 known species. Renown for their acrobatics, this exceptional three percent define themselves chiefly by their unparalleled flight ability. Swirling their wings in a shallow figure-eight pattern, hummingbirds achieve both lift and thrust by alternating the downstroke and upstroke of each wingbeat. This feature enables them to hover and thus exploit nectar as a food source compared to far larger and heavier birds which could not perch on slender flower stems. Flower nectar is comprised largely of sucrose. This natural fuel is brimming with energy, enabling the Ruby-throat and its nectarivore relatives to convert 97% of the calories into flight energy within just twenty minutes of their dip and sip meal on the go. Whereas we see merely bright colors, the Ruby-throat dials in its avian super power–near ultraviolet vision–far exceeding our own, to access the choicest flower blooms brimming with nectar. Snapping up an occasional small spider or insect to add to this “high octane” fuel, the hummer powers wings that can reach a whirring, blurring, 200 beats per second, which in turn powers flight acceleration from 0-30 miles per hour in under half a second. Yet all of this flitting back and forth, up and down, can take its toll so the hummer can “power down” entering a temporary, hibernation-like state known as torpor, which consumes a mere 1/15th of its normal energy demands.

Hummingbirds, by nature, are exquisitely beautiful creatures. Adorned with feathers which refract light at angles, they literally sparkle and shine in the light. The male Ruby-throat gets its name from the prism-like quality of it’s bib or throat feathers which shade from graphite to inky black to dazzling ruby red. This most eye-catching display is of keen interest to female hummers, which are drawn to especially vibrant males.       

While these physical adaptations give the Ruby-throat the edge, it’s the bird’s behavioral adaptations which truly separate it from the rest. Nature has endowed certain micro-beasts with mega-beast swagger and this pinky-sized aerial acrobat is one of them! Hummingbirds are not only the world’s smallest, lightest and most maneuverable birds, they are arguably the most aggressive. Parrying and thrusting each other with their sword-like bills for choice flower feeding, and dive-bombing each other at more than 275 body lengths per second to protect territory, these little dynamos mean business. It’s precisely this “tude” that often drives off competitors and far larger creatures alike–especially potential predators. When you’re a hummingbird, nearly every untormented creature poses a danger. Blue jays, American crows, Gray squirrels, domestic cats and Eastern Rat snakes all know Ruby-throats by the droning of wings and unrelenting thrusting of bills.

Such larger-than-life presence serves the Ruby-throat well. Though one of the world’s smallest hummingbirds (the Cuban Bee Hummingbird is a mere two inches long), The wildly successful Ruby-throat commands the largest territory of all North American species. Raising its broods from Tic-Tac-sized eggs incubated in walnut-sized nests from Canada to Mexico and from the Great Plains to Tod’s Point, this tiny wonder is unmatched in both ability and adaptability.

Inversely proportional to its size, the Ruby-throat’s capabilities are prodigious.

Though not all of us are small in stature, at times the world around us can certainly make us feel that way. When that happens, remember the Ruby-throat and shine, hum and don’t be afraid to let the world know who you are.    

Jim Knox is a graduate of Cornell University and serves as Curator of Education at the Beardsley Zoo. 

As the writer and host for television’s Wild Zoofari and as an on-camera wildlife expert for The Today Show, The CBS Early Show and Fox News, Jim has shared his knowledge of, and passion for wildlife with millions of viewers. Jim has been featured in The New York Times and is a TED Talk,  corporate, and keynote presenter helping audiences put lessons from wildlife into practice in their everyday lives. In Greenwich, Jim is a science advisor for The Bruce Museum and a columnist for the Greenwich Sentinel.

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