Unlocking the Secrets Behind the Hummingbird's Frenzy

To our eyes, they often are a blur. But high-speed cameras show us what makes these birds perfect flying machines.

A captive Anna’s hummingbird feeds while hovering before an optical illusion in a reenactment of an experiment that illustrates just how heavily hummingbird flight depends on the bird’s visual perceptions. When this spiral rotates to create the illusion that the bird is moving forward, the bird shifts into “reverse gear”—and its beak slips out of the feeder. (Sources: Benny Goller and Doug Altshuler, University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

In pursuit of the world’s smallest bird, we’ve come to the backyard of a flamingo pink house in Palpite, Cuba. Ornithologist Christopher Clark has a car full of gear to unload: cameras, sound equipment, a sheer cube-shaped cage. Within minutes of arriving this May morning, Clark is spinning around in circles. He’s trying to follow the path of a bullet with wings as it whizzes from one clump of orange fire bush blossoms to the next. When the hummingbird pauses to draw sugary fuel from the flowers, his wings continue to beat a grayish blur too fast for the human eye to resolve.

Even by the Lilliputian standards of hummingbirds, Cuba’s bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is a midget—literally the smallest bird in the world. Its iridescent green body weighs a bit more than the average almond. Locally it’s known as zunzuncito—the little buzz-buzz, after the sound it makes—and is even smaller than its cousin the zunzun, or emerald hummingbird.

What this bird lacks in size, he makes up for in enthusiasm when he spots a visitor in his territory. She’s a comely female, contained by the sheer cage that Clark brought and has placed on a corrugated metal roof. If the male notices this female’s enclosure, it doesn’t dampen his ardor. He helicopters up from his perch on a branch, hovers in the air, and lets out a trill in her direction.

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