Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Nest of the ruby-throat hummingbird.

Photo by George Fiske, Jr.


The Hummingbird

Teacher's Story

Formerly it was believed that this daintiest of birds found the nectar of flowers ample support for its active life; but the later methods of discovering what birds eat by examining the contents of their stomachs, show that the hummingbird is an insect eater of most ravenous appetite. Not only does it catch insects in mid air, but undoubtedly takes them while they are feasting on the nectar of the tubular flowers which the hummingbird loves to visit. Incidentally, the hummingbird carries the pollen for these flowers and may be counted as a friend in every respect, since usually the insects in the nectaries of the flowers with long tubular corollas, are stealing nectar without giving in return compensation to the flower by carrying its pollen. Such insects may be the smaller beetles, ants and flies. The adaptations of the hummingbird's beak and long, double-tubed tongue, are especially for securing this mingled diet of insects and nectar. It is interesting to note that the young hummingbirds have the beak much shorter than when mature. Its beak is exactly fitted to probe those flowers where the hummingbird finds its food. The tongue has the outer edges curved over making a tube on each side. These tubes are provided with minute brushes at the tips and thus are fitted both for sucking nectar and for sweeping up the insects.

The natural home of the hummingbird seems to have been in the American tropics. Our one species east of the Rocky Mountains with which we are all familiar has a ruby throat. This comes to us after a very long journey each year. One species on the Pacific Coast is known to travel three thousand miles to the north for the summer and back again in winter.


A hummingbird taking sweetened water from a flower.

Photo by Mary Pierson Allen.   Courtesy of Bird Lore.

Hummingbirds are not supposed to sing, but to use their voices for squeaking when angry or frightened. However, I once had the privilege of listening to a true song by a hummingbird on the Pacific Coast. The midget was perched upon a twig and lifted up his voice with every appearance of ecstasy in pouring forth his lay. To my uncultured ear this song was a fine, shrill, erratic succession of squeaks, "as fine as a cambric needle," said my companion.


Two young hummingbirds in nest.

Half natural size.

The nest of the hummingbird is a most exquisite structure; it is about three-fourths of an inch in diameter on the inside and about half an inch deep. It is, in shape, a symmetrical cup; the outside is covered with lichens to make it exactly resemble the branch on which it rests; the inside is lined with the down of plant seeds and plant fibres. The lichens are often fastened to the outside with the silk web of spiders or caterpillars. The nest is usually saddled on a branch of a tree from 10 to 50 feet above the ground. The eggs are two in number and white; they look like tiny beans. The young are black and look, at first glance, more like insects than like birds.


The Hummingbird

Leading thought—The hummingbird in flight moves its wings so rapidly that we cannot see them. It can hold itself poised above flowers while it thrusts its long beak into them for nectar and insects.

Method—Give the questions to the pupils and let them make the observations when they have the opportunity.


1. Where do you find the hummingbird? What flowers was it visiting? At what time of day? Can you tell whether it is a hummingbird or a hawk-moth which is visiting the flowers? At what time of day do the hawk-moths appear?

2. Does the hummingbird ever come to rest? Describe its actions while resting.

3. What are the colors of the back, throat, breast and under parts? How do you distinguish the mother hummingbird from her mate?

4. How does the hummingbird act when extracting the nectar? How does it balance itself in front of a flower? Have you ever seen hummingbirds catch insects in the air? If so, describe how they did it.

5. Describe the hummingbird's nest. How large is it in diameter? What is the covering outside? With what is it lined?


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