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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hummingbirds of Ecuador - Small Wonders

Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera)

The hummingbird is a diminutive creature endemic to the Americas, the majority found in the neo-tropics. The English name is derived from the constant “hum” produced by the rapid beating of the wings. There are 339 known species with nearly 40% of those (132 species) found in Ecuador. Extraordinarily beautiful in color and intensely fascinating in flight, this miniature acrobat can mesmerize even the most apathetic individual.

Hummingbirds can flap their wings from 12-90 beats per second, depending on the species. They have the unusual ability to rotate their wings at the shoulder that enables them to not only fly forward but also hover and fly backward, the latter being exclusive to their family of avifauna. Hummingbirds can exceed speeds of 15 m/s or 54 km/h (34 mi/h), charging at intruders and stopping within inches of an interloper.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet (Boissonneaua matthewsii)
The hummingbird is among the smallest of birds ranging from the miniscule Bee Hummingbird of Cuba at 5 cm (2 in.) to the Giant Hummingbird measuring a whopping 16.5 cm (6 ½ in.). The Amethyst Woodstar and the Short-tailed Woodstar of Ecuador are in contention for the smallest at 6 cm (2.4 in.).
With a few exceptions, hummingbirds are some of the most brilliantly decorated and intensely colored of all avian species. They glimmer with an iridescence that is produced by microscopic feather structure rather than pigmentation. This can result in problems with identification as well as photography since the wrong light angle can render these areas as black. However, in the proper illumination, there is no comparison to their beauty.

While in flight, hummingbirds exhibit the highest metabolism of all animal species. Their heart rates can reach an astounding 1,260 beats per minute. To maintain this constant need for energy, these small birds consume more than their own weight in nectar each day. Constantly visiting hundreds of flowers daily, they are only hours from starvation at any time. They can store just enough food to survive the night, and this is only accomplished by going into a hibernation state or torpor. However, nectar does not provide the protein needed to sustain life so the consumption of insects is necessary to maintain a balance.

Velvet-purple Coronet (Boissonneaua jardini)
The bills of the hummingbird are long and narrow, varying in length depending on the species. Beaks can be as short as 11 mm (0.4 in) of the Blue-mantled Thornbill to the extraordinary length of the Sword-billed Hummingbird at 90 – 100 mm (3 ½ - 4 in.), almost exceeding its own body length. When feeding, the bill opens slightly as the tubular tongue slides into the flower to extract the nectar.

Hummingbirds are very territorial and can be very aggressive when protecting their feeding grounds. They will approach birds much larger than themselves and even confront humans who wander into their personal space. Looking eye to eye with an irate hummer can be a memorable experience.

With no hummingbirds native to Europe and only a few (16) inhabiting North America, this avian family can present a rewarding addition to any visit to the neo-tropics of the south. Most lodges and many restaurants place feeders on they premises to attract these diminutive creatures. This, in itself, draws many tourists to search for of these magnificent denizens of the tropics.

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