WORDS BY WILLOW DEFEBAUGH
Hummingbirds, as the only birds capable of hovering, have a lot to teach us about living lightly.
“It’s not possible to constantly hold onto crisis. You have to have the love, you have to have the magic. That’s also life.”
Out of all the avian species that exist, I’ve always had a fondness for hummingbirds. Perhaps it’s that they’re the closest creatures we have to fairies—the way their small wings flutter in flight from flower to flower, humming along. There’s something magical about an animal that has its own song; the aerodynamics of a hummingbird’s wings produce a sonorous hum that no other species can come close to. And then there’s the fact that they’re the only bird capable of hovering, the evolutionary reason for which brought me some sweet peace this week.
Before we can get to the why, though, we need to talk about the how. Hovering is one of the most energetically expensive activities in the animal kingdom. A hummingbird can flap its wings up to 200 times per second in order to hover precisely in place or dive through the air. Their hearts beat up to 1,200 times per minute; by comparison, the average human heart beats only 80 times per minute. The pectoral muscles that allow them to hover make up a third of their body weight. As you can imagine, they must be incredibly mindful of how they’re spending their energy.
In order to sustain such movement, these creatures consume vast amounts of nourishment. A hummingbird will drink up to 10,000 calories of nectar in a single day from 1,000 different flowers. To put that into perspective, you would need to eat 300 hamburgers a day to get the same amount of sustenance. Hummingbirds can starve to death in just two hours. Still, they are tiny; the smallest hummingbird weighs the same as a dime, and the largest nine dimes. This is largely due to the fact that they have the highest metabolic rates of any vertebrate during the day.
Nighttime is a different story. Hummingbirds balance their extreme energetic outputs with equally extreme measures for rest. They’re what’s known as endotherms, meaning they use thermoregulation to keep their body temperatures constant during the day. But at night, they drop their body temperatures to near-hypothermic levels in order to use as little energy as possible. Rather than sleeping, this technique mirrors the benefits of hibernation.
Hummingbirds are quite capable at discerning what feeds them. Their brains are bigger than other birds, with an enlarged hippocampus that allows them to remember locations of flowers. Another enlarged part of their brain is the part that detects motion, with recent research finding that they process information from all sides equally, making them uniquely equipped to navigate their surroundings. A recent study even found that hummingbirds are capable of identifying mathematical patterns to assess which flowers contain nectar.
Which brings us, finally, to why these birds have evolved to be able to hover. Many of the flowers that they sip nectar from are so delicate that they would break, were even a creature as light as the hummingbird to land on them. And so, despite all the energy it requires, they attained the ability to fly and feed in place, to expertly explore the winding world around them, in order to obtain the sustenance they need without harming the flora that give it freely. Across eons, evolution has afforded them the ability to be gentle—and in return, they stay nourished.
We have a lot to learn from our feathered friends about living lightly. We, too, must be mindful of our energy; to be a human living through such strenuous times takes a lot. We must ensure that we’re not always “holding onto crisis” as the late Toni Morrison put it, but also seeking out sweetness from the sources we have found over time. And when everything around us seems impossible to understand, we can remember our ability to navigate the world with kindness—to be gentle with ourselves, each other, and the Earth for all the while we hover here.