H is for Hummingbird.

The hummingbirds make up the family Trochilidae.  Within this family is the smallest living bird today. The bee hummingbird weighs less than a 1 pence coin and is around 5 cm in length! The hummingbirds get their name from the sound they make. The sound, which is similar to that of a bee, is created by the beating of their tiny wings. Their wings are perhaps the most extraordinary of all birds. The wings of the hummingbird can reach up to 200 beats per second! This allows them to travel at speeds of 35 mph. For an animal that is smaller than your thumb to be able to travel faster than Usain Bolt is rather astonishing!

This has lead scientists to study hummingbirds in order to better understand the mechanisms of flight and aerodynamics. Hummingbirds are exceptional in their flight technique and this allows them to essentially ‘hover’. This is needed in nature because they have to hover in the air in order to extract nectar from plants. This ability of suspended flight is thought to have evolved alongside plants who began forming symbiotic partnerships with some hummingbirds. Some plants even have a 1:1 relationship with hummingbirds. This means that only one species of hummingbird is able to retrieve nectar (and therefore help pollinate) from a plant and therefore they are entirely dependant on that species. In addition to their ability of hovering, some hummingbirds can fly upside and backwards!

The hummingbirds lead one of the most active lifestyles of any animal on earth. In order to achieve such an active life, they have evolved an impressive metabolism. To keep up with their wings beating over 100 times a second, some hummingbirds are known to have a heart rate as high as 1260 bpm! This is ten times the heart rate of a human and is only beaten by some insects. Alongside this, they can breath over 500 times a minute! Hummingbirds can also go to the other extreme. During the night-time (or times where food is not readily available) the hummingbird can reduce its metabolism 10-fold. This means the bird requires less energy and therefore less food. It is similar to the process of hibernation or torpor in other animals.

Like most other birds, the hummingbirds can also undergo migration. In fact, the ‘migrating ruby-throated hummingbird’ is able to migrate 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico in one single flight! This is achieved by drastically altering the metabolism of the bird as described above. However, in order to do this the bird must first put on weight. Essentially the bird becomes like a marathon runner who ‘carbo-loads’ before the big event. In order to ‘carbo-load’ for an event that is almost 20 times as long as a marathon, the hummingbird must double its body weight! Despite having such a high metabolism, hummingbirds have a surprisingly longer lifespan than expected. For example, the female ‘broad-tailed hummingbird’ has been known to live over 11 years long! In that time, its heart could have beaten over 1 billion times!

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