Of all the exotically named bird species in Costa Rica, the hummingbirds beat all contenders. Their names are poetry: the green-crowned brilliant, purple-throated mountaingem, Buffon’s plummeteer, and the bold and strikingly beautiful fiery-throated hummingbird. There are more than 300 species of New World hummingbirds constituting the family Trochilidae (Costa Rica has 51), and all are stunningly pretty. The fiery-throated hummingbird, for example, is a glossy green, shimmering iridescent at close range, with dark blue tail, violet-blue chest, glittering coppery orange throat, and a brilliant blue crown set off by velvety black on the sides and back of the head. Some males take their exotic plumage one step further and are bedecked with long streamer tails and iridescent moustaches, beards, and visors.
These tiny high-speed machines are named because of the hum made by the beat of their wings. At up to 100 beats per second, the hummingbirds’ wings move so rapidly that the naked eye cannot detect them. They are often seen hovering at flowers, from which they extract nectar and often insects with their long, hollow, and extensile tongues forked at the tip. Alone among birds, they can generate power on both the forward and backward wing strokes, a distinction that allows them to even fly backwards!
Understandably, the energy required to function at such an intense pitch is prodigious. The hummingbird has the highest metabolic rate per unit of body weight in the avian world (its pulse rate can exceed 1,200 beats a minute) and requires proportionately large amounts of food. One biologist discovered that the white-eared hummingbird consumes up to 850% of its own weight in food and water each day. At night, they go into “hibernation,” lowering their body temperatures and metabolism to conserve energy.
Typically loners, hummingbirds bond with the opposite sex only for the few seconds it takes to mate. Many, such as the fiery-throated hummingbird, are fiercely territorial. With luck you might witness a spectacular aerial battle between males defending their territories. In breeding season, the males “possess” territories rich in flowers attractive to females: the latter gains an ample food source in exchange for offering the male sole paternity rights. Nests are often no larger than a thimble, loosely woven with cobwebs and flecks of bark and lined with silky plant down. Inside, the female will lay two eggs no larger than coffee beans.
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