What do hummingbirds look like?

The hummingbird has a number of qualities that make it distinctive from other birds.  The first is its size. Hummingbirds are one of the smallest species of birds.  In fact, the tiniest hummingbird species, the bee hummingbird of Cuba, is just over 5.5 cm and weighs only 2 grams, making it the smallest living bird.  Even the largest hummingbirds are tiny.  The Giant Hummingbird of western South America is still smaller than most species of sparrows.

bee hummingbird
Bee Hummingbird

Plumage

Hummingbirds are known for their exotic feathers and breathtaking plumage.  Their feathers are often metallic, appearing almost like scales.  In many species of hummingbirds, coloration comes not from pigmentation, but from light reflecting from the cells that exist on top of their feathers.  This “prism effect” can cause a hummingbird to take on different colors simply by shifting the position of its wings.

Hummingbird sexes sometimes appear alike and sometimes don’t, depending on the species.  Distinctions that can signify that a hummingbird is a male are: crests, flag-like tail feathers or a gorget, which is a congregation of iridescent feathers.

Body

Hummingbird’s bodies are a marvel of evolution.  Despite their diminutive size, they are incredibly muscular.  Their wings are built in such a way that allows them to fly vertically, in addition to sideways, forward and backward.  They are also capable of hovering in the air for long periods of time to feed on nectar and insects.  The rate at which they beat their wings ranges from 10 to 80 times per second, with the tinier hummingbirds generally achieving faster rates.

Bill

One of a hummingbird’s most distinctive qualities is its bill.  Typically long and slender, the hummingbird’s bill has evolved in order to make it easier for the hummingbird  to extract nectar from flowers or hummingbird feeders.  The sword-billed hummingbird has one of the longest bills, approximately 50% of the bird’s 21-cm length.

How do I know what species of hummingbird I’m observing?

Check out this article for descriptions of some of the more popular hummingbirds in North America.  You can also peruse our selection of bird field guides, which have color photos of birds across North America.

Want to learn more about hummingbirds? Check out the articles:

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