Bird Watcher's General Store

The Smallest and Largest Hummingbirds

Dear Bird Folks,

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world. True or false?

– Ingrid, Brattleboro, VT

It’s false, Ingrid,

The answer to your question is: False. Now what?

Answering your question was fairly easy, but it makes for a rather short column. If I don’t think of something else to write about quickly there is going to be a lot of empty space on this page. In addition, since I get paid by the word, I won’t make any money writing a short column. You see, I’m paid zero cents a word, but I make it up in volume. How is that possible, you ask? I used to wonder about that myself. Here’s how it was explained to me. I get paid nothing per word, but it adds up. So, if I write 900 words and multiply that by zero, I get…um…let’s see. Hey, wait a second. This can’t be right. I have to go make a phone call.

You are half right. The smallest bird in the word is a hummingbird, but it’s not the ruby-throated. Guinness (of World Records fame) says the world’s smallest bird is the Bee Hummingbird. Bee Hummingbirds are exceptionally small, not much larger than an insect. In fact, the Bee Hummingbird is named after an insect, but the name of that particular insect escapes me right now. Maybe I’ll think of it later (after I figure out how much I’m getting paid). With a body that is just over an inch long, this bird is about the same size as a June bug. But it’s much better looking than a June bug and a million times smarter. (Bee Hummingbirds don’t spend half their time banging into window screens.) As you might imagine, a bird with a 1” body is also ridiculously light. Tipping the scales at a solid 1/16 of an ounce, Bee Hummingbirds weigh less than a U.S. penny (but they aren’t nearly as light as those boney French super models).

The male bee hummer makes up for his lack of size with his blazing-red head colors. During the breeding season the male makes his presence known by flashing his iridescent head and neck feathers. But more impressive than his colors is his wing speed. When hovering, he can flap his wings at an amazing 80 times per second and that number jumps to an unimaginable 200 times per second during courtship. But don’t expect to see any of these fast-flapping birds around New England. Bee Hummingbirds are only found in Cuba. There the birds enjoy the island’s abundant flowers, eat tiny insects and smoke the occasional cigar.

Here in the New England, when we say “hummingbird,” it’s our generic way of saying “Ruby-throated Hummingbird,” because that’s basically all we get. That’s too bad for us because there are an awful lot of other hummingbirds that we never get to see. How many is an “awful lot”? Scientists can’t seem to agree on the exact number of different hummingbird species, but most believe it’s somewhere between scads and oodles. Conservatively, there are over 325 different species of hummingbirds in the world and they are only found in the Americas. (In your face, Europe!) Most of these speedy little birds live in Central and South America, with a few in the Caribbean and North America. Hummers come in a huge variety of shapes and colors, and their names are as interesting as the birds themselves. For example, there’s the “Wire-crested Thorntail” (sounds scary), “Jamaican Mango” (delicious) and the “Fork-tailed Woodnymph” (I think I dated one of those). Oddly, with all of these clever names, the world’s largest hummingbird has a rather lackluster name. It’s called the “Giant Hummingbird.” Boring! They could have done much better. I think something like the “Goliath Sugar Robber” would have been a more exciting name, but no one asked me. They never do.

The Giant Hummingbird is indeed large. It’s about the size of a cardinal and is twelve times heavier than the aforementioned Bee Hummingbird. But even though this bird is big, it lacks many of the exciting features we might expect in a South American hummer. To begin with, it’s not very colorful. In fact, it’s so dull that many of the locals refer to it as "burro q'enti," from the Spanish word burro. And the last time I checked, burros aren’t very colorful (except during Cinco de Mayo). Yet, the bland plumage suits this hummer perfectly. We tend to imagine hummingbirds zipping about the assorted flowers in the rainforest, but the Giant Hummingbird prefers to live in the drier areas of the Andes Mts. How does it find food in such arid terrain? Part of the answer is cacti. Cacti may be slow growers, but they produce flowers and the Goliath Sugar Robbers have the skills needed to avoid the cacti’s’ spines. Just don’t expect to see these big birds flashing about like their smaller cousins do. Some hummers may flap at a rate of 80 times per second, but the giant only beats its wings ten times per second. Slacker.

Although, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is not the smallest, Ingrid, it’s not the largest hummingbird, either. But I’d be willing to bet that the ruby-throat holds a record that even the people at Guinness have never thought of. Each year scads of people buy oodles of feeders in an effort to attract this one hummingbird. That means the lowly Ruby-throated Hummingbird is very likely the most economically important hummer of them all. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that the only record that really matters? I say, yes!

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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