Miracles happen every day right under our noses, but we often take them for granted. I am guilty of being too busy, not noticing nature's wide array of beauty in my own back yard or in this case my own front porch. Every May we hang a hummingbird feeder from the rafters of our old farmer's porch and wait. Faithfully, this tiny winged spirit of the air –the ruby throated hummingbird-arrives to sip sugar water from our red-topped feeder. Recently, I learned that not everyone ignores this smallest of birds. Scientists have conducted extensive studies and come up with surprising results.
Soon we will witness the courtship dive that does stop me in my tracks. I look out the kitchen window and see this wild air show, as the male zeroes in on a willing female. He dives at 385 body lengths per second- the fastest known speed (relative to body length) of any vertebrate. That equates to 49 miles per hour, creating 10 g of gravitational force. Fighter pilots experiencing similar g-force nearly black out under similar pressure.
The rufous hummingbird-west coast cousin to the ruby throated- migrates 3900 miles from southern Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico-which makes the record books for longest migratory journey of any bird in the world. Our local species migrates to Mexico and has been monitored flying 500 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. This mystifies scientists who note that humming birds have high metabolism which requires frequent nutrition. Hummingbirds are vulnerable to starvation and thus are highly tuned to food sources, including neighborhood feeders. I have noticed how territorial they are, perching on our rhododendron and aggressively attacking other birds trying to take a sip. Even in rainstorms, they maintain their post, shaking water off their heads just like dogs.
These tiny jeweled sprites with shimmering feathers have been subjected to high-tech study. High speed photos reveal that they have micro-pumps in their tongues. These tubes open as they go in and close on the way out, trapping nectar in a pumping action. Electromyography captures hovering maneuvers. Flight studies using high speed cameras in wind tunnels record aerodynamics, perhaps in hopes of learning more about flight. The Wright brothers used wind tunnels and close observation of birds to created their famous Wright flyer, on display at The Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
Scientists are not the only ones to appreciate the beauty of humming birds. Poets are captivated, too. Emily Dickinson wrote of them as did Mary Howitt. She makes me want to see with a poet's eye. Here is a little gem.
By Mary Howitt
The humming-bird the humming-bird!
So fairy-like and bright; it lives among the sunny flowers,
A creature of delight!