Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Look at the tongue on that hummingbird!

This little hummingbird worked herself into such a tizzy defending her nectar source I couldn't take my eyes off her. Fierce and protective, she eventually settled down on a small branch in the American Hornbeam tree. If you didn't know better, you would think she was sticking her tongue out at the juvenile trying to muscle in on her nectar source. This photo is not high quality, but it's great for teaching. Look at that long, long tongue!


Hummingbird tongues can be as long as or longer than their bills.

Hummingbirds have very unique tongues! To start with, the tip is forked and covered in a fringe that works like a mop to help the hummingbird lap up nectar, but it doesn't stop there...the edges of the hummingbird's tongue curl up to form small, open channels that use capillary action to pull in nectar. At one time, it was thought hummingbirds had straw-like tongues and sucked in nectar just like butterflies or moths do with their proboscis, but now researchers know they flick their tongues in and out up to 13 times a second to lap up nectar.

Update: I just read the article, "How the hummingbird's tongue really works," by Deborah Braconnier, so I thought I'd add it in. According to the research of Associate professor of ecology Margaret A. Rubega and graduate student Alejandro Rico-Guevara from the University of Connecticut, hummingbirds do not use capillary action to take in nectar. Instead, they curl their tongues to trap liquid. It's an unconscious, automatic effort that requires no energy by the bird. Click here for the entire article and a video of the hummingbird's tongue in action.


Because the tongue is so long, it lets the hummingbird
lap up nectar even if it can't reach its bill into the flower.
If you look carefully at this photo, you can see the tongue
curving down into the flower at a 90-degree angle to the bill.


Sometimes hummingbirds sip nectar from the base of
a flower from holes drilled in the blossom by insects. In
this photo you can see the hummingbird looking under
the flower. I don't think she found a hole, though...


Tucked in the dark shadows of the pines about
15 feet from the Lucifer crocosmia, this little female
hummingbird chattered and squeaked and
scolded. Her bill looks so sweet here...

Beak Bit (...literally this time!)
Every time I've watched a hummingbird, I've never seen one open his or her bill up wide. Even while chattering and scolding, the birds always seem to have such tiny little openings, so I wondered how they caught insects. Hummingbirds can not live on nectar alone. They also need protein, and therefore they become predators on the hunt for fruit flies, small spiders, and all sorts of flying insects, but their bills just don't seem suited to nabbing insects in the air like a flycatcher, so I wondered how they did it. All of my books at home talk about the importance of insects in a hummingbird's diet, and one even recommends putting out rotten fruit to attract fruit flies, but they never say how a hummingbird catches the insects, so I did a quick Internet search and found lots of interesting articles. Apparently, a hummingbird's lower mandible is bendy. Here is a clip from "Flexible feeders: the lower bill of the hummingbird makes a nectar-drinking beak into one for catching insects" by Adam Summers in "Natural History," Sept 2004. Click here for a link to the full article.

"To see how hummingbirds catch insects, Yanega and Rubega ran a video camera at 500 frames a second to film individuals of several species in slow motion as they fed on fruit flies. Projected at far slower rates, the movies reveal that a hummingbird catches flies at the base of its bill rather than at the tip. Most surprising, as the bird opens its beak to catch a fly, the lower bill suddenly bends downward at a point near the middle and widens, enlarging the bird's mouth to the detriment of the fly."

As in the previous hummingbird posts, any information I didn't know already, I gleaned from the "National Geographic Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America," edited by Mel Baughman. This is one of my favorite books for little details about bird behavior.

42 comments:

holdingmoments said...

Another brilliant, informative post Kelly. These really are amazing little birds.

Chris said...

Yep... very informative post and beautiful pictures kelly... You are so lucky to have them around! Such a tiny cute bird!

Sue said...

Hubby and I always wondered how they feed their young-must be insects?
Very informative. And how on earth does one get a picture of these hyper birds' tongues?????
You're tooooo good!

Midmarsh John said...

I didn't know they fed on insects as well as nectar. Thanks for the detailed information.
Beautiful photos, especially the first and last.

Laure Ferlita said...

Hummer tongues!

Now, that makes me smile!

Outstanding post!

♥ Kathy♥ said...

LOL never knew that about a hummingbirds tongue. Very pretty little bird. You know I have seen a hummingbird once and didn't know what it was at first since it kept attacking me. LOL I thought it was a large bug.

Warren Baker said...

Incredible, amazing little gems of nature, everything about them is superlative.

Roy said...

A great post Kelly,
Hummers are really amazing little creatures, so complex in such a small body.

Susan Ellis said...

Perfect little flying emeralds with incredible abilities! Your post is great Kelly.

Roy said...

Huh! I didn't know they ate insects, too. Thanks for the info.

Ginnymo said...

Wow! Long tongues they have!! What great shots Kelly!!

JKoenig said...

All I can say is God's Creation is truly beyond our imagination!

That is so interesting.....

Busy Bee Suz said...

This is so interesting...I had no idea about their 'funky' tongues. :)
I love your photos and all the research you have done. Great job Kelly!!

Caroline said...

Gosh, what a find your blog is! Terrific - beautiful photography and so interesting and informative. Thank you!

Montanagirl said...

Your posts are packed with good info, Kelly! I knew they have extremely long tongues by watching them at my feeders, but I didn't know how they managed the insect part of their diet. Good post!

Steve B said...

Cool data. I've tried to get photos of hummingbird tongues be never could get the time right! I've been digging the hummingbird shots you've been posting.

Chris Petrak said...

More great hummer shots! I have seen them with open beak, but it isn't easy - they are so small.

Elaine said...

Wow, Kelly, great capture of the tongue! I learned a lot about hummingbirds that I didn't know from this post. Amazing little creatures. That last photo is a real charmer.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Well I'll be darn, Kelly.... I've never seen a picture of a hummer's tongue before. That is AMAZING. How did you manage to get that one????? WOW!!!!

It is hard not to watch them for long periods of time. We don't have too many around her this year---but there is a few.

Hope you are having a wonderful day.
Hugs,
Betsy

ShySongbird said...

My goodness what a long tongue! Your photo showed that beautifully. A lovely informative post with more brilliant photos Kelly.

Jenny said...

What a great post, full of fab photos and interesting information. Great post as usual Kelly. I wish we had hummers over here!!! (-:

Hilke Breder said...

Amazing photos - you are hitting the jackpot every time, Kelly. Great info too about the hummer beaks.

dAwN said...

Always a pleasure visiting here..
I have been traveling and without internet..now in Montana for a little over a week and have wifi..yippee..then off to yellowstone and no internet again for over a week...I see deep withdrawels in my future..
But anyway..
here I am..
catching up..
thanks!
Beautiful sights to behold!

The Early Birder said...

Thanks for the drinking & eating lesson 'teacher'. Great pics as well. FAB

James said...

That is amazing. I used to have a hummingbeird feeder but I had no idea how long their tongues are. Very interesting post and great pictures.

Jayne said...

What fascinating facts Kelly to go along with your very gorgeous photos!

John said...

Hi Kelly,

I am please to tell you that I have Nominated you for the Kreativ Blog Award.

I am sure you know what to do, but just in case follow what I have had to do to get the award.

http://westcountrybirdingandwildlifediary.blogspot.com/2009/08/kreativ-blogger-award.html

Great photos keep it up.

John

Adrienne in Ohio said...

Kelly, this is a wonderful post. I have learned my something new for today and now can happily go about chores. Thanks!

Connie said...

Oh my. I thought I knew a lot about hummers. I don't think I knew any of the stuff you posted.

What a great post.

jeannette stgermain said...

Never knew that those little birds I see around my house had such long tongues - thanks for all the info.!

flyingstars said...

simply beautifully captured shots....lovely informative post!

Abraham Lincoln said...

Yep, they do open their bills and I have seen them after bees. I have some photos of their bills or beaks pretty wide. In some fighting photos I have they are wider than normal. Fierce fighters when they want to be.

I have the issue of "breast feeding" on my main blog today Pick a Peck of Pixels

Mary said...

Wonderful shots! They do have really long interesting tongues. Nice to see one not at a feeder. Which reminds me that I need to clean and fill mine now that I'm back home.

blondcat said...

Beautiful pictures and really great info. Hummingbirds are so beautiful, i love to collect hummingbird figurines to show all my family. I have a website selling hummingbird figurines and garden plaques, if anyone is interested check it out at flockoffigurines.com

DK Miller said...

I had no idea they had such long tongues. Great info and lovely photos of these birds.

Snap said...

Kelly,

I loved this post ... stunning photos and I hope I remember some of the wonderful information you shared!

Thanks for dropping by!

E said...

Beautiful pics, Kelita, congratulations, it is very interesting.
Great job. Love it! Hugs.

Andor Marton said...

That's a surprisingly long tongue, I thought only their beak is long.
Thanks for this informative post.

Kelly said...

...are you getting sick of hummers yet? I only have one more post. I'm really glad that little hummer stuck her tongue out for the camera, otherwise I probably would not have taken the time to research it. I was so blown away at the amazing structure of the hummingbird's tongue I couldn't stop talking about it. Unfortunately, all my friends and relatives had to hear it first hand...."did you read the blog....what do you think about the hummingbird's tongue...." Thank you for your kind comments!! I've barely been home in the past two weeks and have fallen so far behind on comments. Things should return to normal soon.

E said...

Kelly, congratulations, an excellent informative post and very beautiful pics.
I will never get tired of it. Big hugs.

revalice said...

The Tongue: HAS to be longer than the bill! how else could it reach out? In fact, it is 3X as long, and coils around in space in the skull.

Kelly said...

revalice....it doesn't actually "coil around in space" in the skull. It actually forks again at the mandible and then both sections wrap up the skull going from the base over the top and attaching between the eyes. The tongue is more than muscle. It has bones that are scrunched up like an accordion. It can straighten out these bones when it flexes the tongue muscle, allowing the tongue to slip out the bill's length. Woodpeckers have a similar structure.