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Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/ NGPC)

Not all beaks are made for tearing or cracking. Some are used to "dip and sip."

Hummingbirds have long, needlelike beaks they use to probe deep into flowers. There are various types of hummingbirds, and each will seek out the types of flowers best suited for the size and shape of its particular beak.

If you've ever watched a hummingbird feed, you might think it's using its beak like a straw to suck up nectar, but that's not what is happening. The hummingbird's beak is just a protective sheath for its tongue, which is actually what the hummingbird is using to get the nectar out of the flower.

The tip of their tongue is forked and has little hairs all over it. The part of their tongue that is not forked has two grooves in it that look like two tiny troughs stuck together.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

When a hummingbird sticks its tongue into a flower, the nectar is drawn up into the two "troughs." There is no suction going on. Instead, these grooves are drawing the nectar to them in much the same way a paper towel draws up water. This process is called capillary action.

The hummingbird then retracts its tongue, drawing it back into its mouth so the nectar will go down its throat. Then it extends it tongue back out to get more nectar.

Depending on the length of its beak and tongue, a hummingbird can extend and retract its tongue from three to thirteen times per second – which makes it look like the hummingbird is licking or lapping up the nectar.

When you were little, maybe you thought it was a big deal to touch your tongue to your nose. A hummingbird can easily outdo that. It can extend its tongue as far beyond its bill as the bill is long.

Hyoid Apparatus

Hyoid Apparatus

(LifeART image copyright 2009 Wolters Kluwer
Health, Inc. - Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
All right reserved.)

It can perform this amazing feat because it has a special structure called the hyoid apparatus.

The hyoid apparatus is made up of bones, cartilage, and muscle. It's attached to the tongue – which means a hummingbird actually has a boney tongue.

At the base of a hummingbird's beak, the hyoid apparatus splits to go around what scientists call the foramen magnum (the large hole where the spinal cord enters the brain). The hyoid apparatus continues along the back and up over the top of the skull, where it ends up between the eyes.

Only hummingbirds and woodpeckers have the hyoid apparatus. This structure supports the bird's tongue and allows the bird to extend it deep into flowers or tree trunks to extract the food the bird needs.

Hummingbirds don't live only on nectar – they must also eat insects to get protein. Sometimes they eat insects they find inside the flowers or on leaves, but most often they catch insects on the fly.

This might seem impossible. How can a hummingbird catch insects with its long, skinny beak? Researchers have found that hummingbirds have an interesting adaptation that enables them to overcome their seemingly inadequate insect-catching beak.

Using a high-speed video camera set to capture 500 frames per second, Gregor M. Yanega and Margaret A. Rubega discovered that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Magnificent Hummingbirds, and Blue-throated Hummingbirds can widen their lower mandibles near their mouths.

When this widening takes place, the hummingbird's beak bends downward as much as 20 degrees, making it a much better insect catcher.

A hummingbird is capable of catching an insect with the tip of its beak, and sometimes it does this. But when it uses this method, the hummingbird has difficulty working the prey down toward its throat.

A hummingbird is more likely to charge at an insect and catch the bug at the base of its widened beak, because the widening trick saves the hummingbird the trouble of trying to getting the prey down its throat.


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