The Hummingbird Bill
It will Amaze you

A Hummingbird Bill serves many functions.

During mating season, hummingbirds use their bills when squabbling amongst one another to claim territory.

Then when it comes time to build a nest, female hummers use their bill to weave a tiny nest. Paste it together with spider webs and camouflage it with lichen and other material they collect.

And most importantly, the every day, use to obtain food.

The size and shape of a hummer's bill varies from species to species.

For example, the Purple-backed thornbill has a bill of less than 1.3 cm while the Sword-billed hummingbird has a bill that reaches up to 10 cm (almost as long as its entire body).

The shape of a hummingbird's bill also vary among species. Some bills are straight, some up-turned, and others curve downward. Often, the shape of the hummingbird's bill mirrors the shape of the flowers on which it feeds.

Deep, tube-shaped flowers require long bills to reach the nectar inside. Flat, open-faced flowers are easily accessed with shorter bills. This isn't a fast rule, however.

A hummingbird bill is designed to enter flower like snapdragons that are closed to most insects.

Hummingbirds also hunt insects and do it quite well.

Some folks believe a hummingbird bill and tongue sucks nectar much like a butterfly. Butterflies and moths have a straw like instrument called a proboscis that does suck nectar.

Hummingbirds lick up to 15 times a second using a barbed, forked tongue.

Because a Hummingbird's Bill overlaps (the top overlaps the bottom portion of the bill), there is no waste of valuable nectar.

The Hummingbird Bill, like all bird bills, are made of hard protein called keratin.

Keratin is also found in feathers, and human nails.

Flexible Bills:

Now here is where it gets really interesting.

In 2004 a pair of scientists from the University of Connecticut wondered how these long thin bills can catch insects that are needed for protein in their high energy diet.

"Margaret Rubega" and "Gregor Yanega" set out to find out how a long skinny bill catches insects.

Most birds that are insectivores have short, wide beaks. The hummingbird study - part of the Ph.D. research of graduate student Gregor Yanega, began with this question:

"How do these nectar-feeding birds catch insects at all?" Yanega asked.

Using high-speed video to study three species of hummingbirds, the researchers observed that the birds bend their lower beak downward by up to 20 degrees.

The movement effectively opens the beak wider, and increases the bird's ability to catch an insect in its mouth rather than at the tip of its beak.

The pair found that hummingbirds also flex the lower jaw laterally at the same time, to widen the area at the base of the bill.

Observe the photos (All credit is given to Gregor Yanega for the stunning pictures).

AMAZING, aren't they?

"Being able to bend the lower jaw vertically and laterally seems to allow a bird with narrowly set jaws to have an effectively larger mouth," says Yanega.

A second surprise was discovered as well ................

By clearing and staining some specimens to reveal bone and cartilage - that the lower beak doesn't have a joint that would facilitate the bending.

A few other fly-catching birds have a joint in the lower jaw, which flexes sideways to make the jaw wider; but none are known to flex their beaks in two dimensions like hummingbirds.

Although nectar is a good energy source, it lacks many nutrients, and hummingbirds still needed protein.

A female hummer needs to be efficient at catching food as she spends three to four weeks feeding hungry and growing nestlings.

Pinching insects with a pair of tweezers wont get the job done, it was also discovered that insects are caught in the back of the mouth or bill as opposed to being snatched by the front or point of the bill.

Observations show that hummers have a difficult time getting the bugs from front to back when they manage to snag one with the front of the bill.

Even these marvelous creatures have an Achilles heel?

Finding the Unexpected:

The researchers' discovery was possible through the use of high-speed video, which runs at 500 frames per second and can capture movements of the hummingbird's bill that are too rapid for the unaided eye to see.

To conduct the study, Yanega caught several ruby-throated hummingbirds and kept them in a special flight cage stocked with fruit flies.

The birds were released after experimental work was complete.

In addition to studying ruby-throated hummingbirds in Connecticut, Yanega collected data on two other species in Arizona: blue-throated and magnificent hummingbirds.

All three species have long straight bills.

The Hummingbird Bill is indeed a special tool.

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