Hummingbird – High-Speed Nectar Sipper

The hummingbird is one of the world’s smallest, oldest, and most adapted living bird species. Part of the Trochilidae family, hummingbirds are in the Apodiforme subfamily, which means ‘unfooted’. Because their wings move them around so well, they don’t need feet for much more than perching.

Between North and South America, over 800 plant species have evolved to rely on hummingbirds for reproduction! Basically, most trumpet flowers are shaped to fit hummingbird beaks.


European hummingbird fossils have been found that are between 40-50 million years old.

Species You’ll See in  Nevada County

Calliope, Black-Chinned, Rufous, Anna’s

Anna’s hummingbirds can be full-time Nevada County residents.


Hummingbirds currently live in both North and South America, but many of them are mobile, spending spring in the north and winter where it’s warmer, between Alaska and Mexico.

Distinctive Characteristics

  • Smallest living vertebrate
  • Fastest wing beats of any bird
  • Fastest metabolism of almost all animals some species hearts beat 1,000/minute
  • Needs to eat frequently during daylight hours

Special Adaptations

  • Small feet used for perching not walking
  • Long hover times (compared to other birds)
  • 49 mph in flight diving speeds
  • Consumes more than its body weight of nectar each day
  • Frequent urinator – Urinates more than its body weight every day (to keep water weight down)
  • Excellent visual memory – enlarged hippocampus to remember visited flowers
  • Specialized nectar sipping tongues – channels along both sides open and close, acting like an ultra-efficient sponge
  • Sleep time is torpor time  – 105 degree body temperature drops to around 50 degrees, heartbeat slows to 36 beats/minute (it beats over 1,000 beats per minute when active)
  • Torpor can also be entered if food becomes scarce
  • Bright feather coloring is the result of pigmentation and prism-like cells in a layer on top of the color
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  • Nectar – in the wild, hummingbirds visit flowers for food, extracting nectar, which is 55% sucrose, 24% glucose, and 21% fructose 
  • Insects
  • Aphids
  • Gnats
  • Fruit Flies
  • Mosquitoes
  • Spiders


With such a high-speed metabolism, these tiny birds generate a lot of heat! Instead of sweating, hummingbirds evaporate moisture a and heat on featherless body structures such as around their eyes, feet, and under the wings. Their exhales also expel heat and moisture. 

Hummingbirds are territorial. They’ll defend flower patches and feeders aggressively. Some studies show aggressive behavior increasing with an increased sugar content of feeder water.


Beyond vocalizations, and their unusual ability to remember songs,  hummingbirds also make vibration sounds with their feathers. Some males, such as the Anna’s,  make whistle /chirping noises with outermost tail feathers during courtship displays.

The Male Tail Trill;

  • Announces the sex and presence of a male bird
  • Provides audible aggressive defense of a feeding territory
  • Is an intrusion tactic
  • Enhances threat communication
  • Helps with mate attraction and courtship


The Rufous hummingbird is the most common species you’ll see in Nevada County. Of all the varieties, it makes the longest migration – 3,900 miles – between Mexico and Alaska. Because it spends time in harsher weather conditions, it can survive below-freezing temperatures.

Click on image to visit live migration map (during migrations)

Life Span

While chicks have very high mortality rates, the birds that reach adulthood live between 3-5 years. However, some banded birds were observed living for up to twelve years.


For males, reproduction is about flashy color displays and elaborate dances.

Females are nest builders and egg sitters. A mother will lay two eggs at a time, incubating them between two weeks to 23 days.

In order to sit long enough to keep eggs warm, females go into torpor. Once hatched, newborns hide, hunkering down deep in the nest only reaching out when they feel the breeze from their mother’s wings.

Fledglings remain in the nest for just over two weeks.

Mother’s feed young a nutrient-dense mash of insects, pollen, and nectar.


How Human Activity Affects Hummingbirds

  • Pesticides in the garden and on crops poison the birds directly or indirectly through the food supply
  • Habitat loss – reduces the native plant food supply
  • Feeders reduce plant pollination activities
  • Feeders near windows increase bird into glass collisions
  • Some sweeteners contain iron or bacteria that adversely affect hummingbird health

 Sweeteners NOT to Use in Feeders

  • Brown sugar
  • Agave
  • Molasses
  • Stevia 
  • Splenda
  • Equal
  • Any diabetic sweetener
  • Raw sugar
  • Honey
  • Any packaged hummingbird mix that contains red die, artificial flavors, dietary supplements, or vitamins (native flowers provide everything they need!)

If You Do Feed Wild Hummingbirds

Use this mixture – 1 cup of white sugar to 4 cups water

Hummingbird with pollen on beak. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons Kpts44

Rewild Your Garden

The BEST way to attract and support hummingbirds is with native plants.

“Flowers should be chosen for their ability to produce nectar, to grow well in your particular region, and to be in bloom when the hummingbirds need them.”  – Redbud Chapter California Native Plant Society

Click here for a Redbud Chapter CNPS hummingbird attracting plant list PDF

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Creek Art

If you live outside Nevada County California, click here for a list of North American Native Plant Societies.

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Resource Videos:


BBC News – Oldest Hummingbird Fossils Found (Germany) 

Hummingbird Central – Migration maps

iNaturalist – Hummingbirds

Independent – Found in France, A 30 million-year-old hummingbird fossil

Nature – Behind the Scenes of Hummingbirds

Popular Mechanics – Hummingbirds Can See Colors We Humans Can’t

Redbud Chapter California Native Plant Society – Native Plants for Landscaping (Pollinators)

Science Alert – Hummingbirds Can See Colors We Can’t Even Imagine, Experiment Reveals

Scientific American – Fossils Reveal Hummingbirds Once Flew Farther Afield

Wikipedia – Hummingbirds
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