While the average hummingbird weighs less than the nickel in your pocket, their hearts can beat at over 1,000 times per minute. Compare that to the 170 beats per minute of a physically fit 20-year-old human engaged in strenuous exercise. Hummingbirds flap their wings up to 80 times per second, and unlike most birds, they can not only fly but hover, zooming around, changing course, and holding altitude as needed with skill that would shame any military pilot. Some of the more “visually” impressive birds, like eagles and condors, seem to be so big and majestic as to live at an entirely different pace from us; hummingbirds are the opposite. Their unassuming bodies are working at a level of efficiency that we can’t even fathom. For the sake of perspective, consider that, according to Stanford University, hummingbirds have the fastest metabolic rate of any animal in existence, and need to consume their full weight in nectar every single day in order to keep going. The San Diego Zoo provides further context: if a human who requires a 3,500-calorie diet suddenly woke up one day with a metabolic rate equivalent to the hummingbird’s, they would have to consume approximately 155,000 calories a day in order to survive. Proportionately speaking, these are incomparably ravenous little birds. Their needle-shaped beaks are designed to let them poke into the hearts of flowers, slurping up whatever nectar is to be found with their long, dart-like tongues. They’re all business, by necessity. With that kind of appetite, and that high a caloric demand, there’s little time to stop. In order to avoid burning through their reserves while they sleep, hummingbirds have evolved the ability to go into a low energy state called “torpor” when resting. This not-quite-hibernation period lowers their body’s caloric demands during the night, so that they will still have the energy to continue their manic dash for nectar at first light.
Indigenous to the New World, most species of hummingbirds have stunning plumages, shades of greens, reds, purples, and other colors which seem to sparkle in the morning light. Residents of Arizona are especially fortunate because our state is recognized as one of the very best places to observe hummingbirds, with seventeen species recorded here, the second most of any state. Hummingbirds have a special place in the mythology of Mexico and the Southwest, much like eagles and other raptors do elsewhere. Rather than seeing a colorful nymph, the mighty Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico regarded hummingbirds as objects of veneration: specifically, hummingbirds were thought to be the reincarnated spirits of warriors who had fallen in battle. For a warlike people who had built a large empire through conquest, few associations could be prouder. Even their chief god, Huitzilopochtli, was often associated with the hummingbird.
They may be diminutive, but their misleading size hides a heart that beats like no other. The hummingbird, far from being the runt of the birding world, has good claim for being as impressive a creature, small or no, as any hawk, eagle, or even condor.
Sometimes, the mightiest things come in the tiniest packages.