Hummingbirds are so familiar to bird enthusiasts in the Americas that it almost seems unfathomable that there isn’t a single extant hummingbird species in Europe, but it’s true. In fact, there isn’t a single hummingbird species in the Old World.
The Americas are home to all of the nearly 350 species of hummingbirds out there today, from the world’s smallest hummingbird, the bee hummingbird, to the giant hummingbird, the largest hummingbird species on the planet.
Most are found in Central and South America. Just 14 of those bird species regularly call North America home.
Europe’s History of Hummingbirds
While there are no modern hummingbirds in Europe today, it wasn’t always that way.
Fossils of what appeared to be 35-million-year-old hummingbirds were found in Germany this century, leading researchers to believe that there were once hummers – or at least related birds – in the Old World.
Since that discovery, at least six more hummingbird fossils have been found in Germany, Poland, and France, according to the National Audubon Society.
We don’t know why hummingbirds no longer live in the Old World. There are a lot of questions marks surrounding the history and evolution of hummingbirds here in the Americas and abroad.
European Hummingbirds in Captivity – Are There Invasive Hummingbirds?
When Europeans first discovered hummingbirds, there was a natural curiosity. After all, they had never seen these small, fascinating birds buzzing around from flower to flower.
One of the first descriptions from a European was from Jean de Léry, who traveled to Brazil in 1557, according to the National Audubon Society. In 1851, John Gould and the Zoological Society of London displayed 1,500 stuffed hummingbirds on wires, bringing in 75,000 visitors, including Queen Victoria.
After Gould died in 1881, the ZSL reports that the collection was sold to the British Museum for £3,000, another similarly large figure in today’s currency.
Visiting a museum or a zoo like the London Zoo is still the only way for European bird lovers to see a hummingbird on their home continent.
Any effort to introduce hummingbirds to Europe failed, and despite the two continent’s history of invasive species of birds moving between the two, such as the Canada goose becoming established in Europe or European starlings and house sparrows, two invasive birds that have become some of North America’s most common birds, wild hummingbirds have not made the move over to Europe.
Though they are long-distance migrants, it would be impossible for hummingbirds to make the trip over the ocean. Hummingbirds have been known to migrate across the Gulf of Mexico to wintering grounds in Central America, but a trip across the Atlantic would be an entirely different feat of 1,500 miles minimum, and stowing away on a ship would require almost constant food consumption.
Hummingbirds must eat every 10 to 15 minutes. Their diet consists of mostly insects and spiders as well as nectar from flowers and nectar feeders provided by humans.
American Hummingbirds From North to South
So, if you’re a resident of Europe reading this, and you’ve never seen a hummingbird in the wild, how can you go about seeing one in its natural habitat?
South and Central America have the greatest diversity of hummingbird species, with hundreds of species, but much of the United States and southern parts of Canada are home to at least one type of hummingbird.
The ruby-throated hummingbird is the most widespread, with its breeding range occupying most of the Midwest and eastward, as well as southern Canada from Alberta to Nova Scotia. The black-chinned hummingbird is the most widespread in the western U.S.
The rufous hummingbird breeds as far north as Alaska and the green-backed firecrown is a resident of the southernmost parts of South America.
These are not the only hummers in North and South America, but they illustrate how far hummingbird populations spread across the continent.
If you see what you think is a hummingbird in Europe, it’s likely a hummingbird hawk-moth, native across much of Europe, Asia, and northern Africa.
Hummingbird hawk-moths (Macroglossum stellatarum) resemble hummingbirds in flight and are often seen in similar places as they hover near flowers with their long, extended proboscises.
Residents of North America are likely familiar with hummingbird moths, of which there are four species on the continent in the genus Hemaris.
In Old World countries, sunbirds take the place of hummingbirds as nectar-eating birds that pollinate the flowers around them.
Scientists are still discovering new sunbirds. There are no native sunbirds in Europe, but there are many different species in Asia and Africa.
At first glance, they could easily be confused with a hummingbird. They have bright colors and long bills that they use to drink nectar. Sunbirds and honeyeaters fill the ecological niche that hummingbirds occupy in the Americas.
But despite their similar appearance, sunbirds aren’t close hummingbird relatives. Hummingbirds are more closely related to swifts and sunbirds are most closely related to crows, according to the University of California, Berkeley.
Their similar colors and styles are an example of convergent evolution, where two species develop similar traits to adapt to similar situations, independent of one another.
Frequently Asked Questions
Could Hummingbirds Survive in Europe?
Hummingbirds wouldn’t be able to naturally make the trip thousands of miles across the ocean without food, even with the help of modern boats, as they need to eat almost constantly. All human attempts to introduce hummingbirds to Europe failed.
It’s not known why they stopped living there, given that fossils of ancient hummingbirds have been found on the continent.
What Countries Have Hummingbirds?
Every country in the Americas is home to at least one hummingbird species. Canada is home to the fewest species of hummingbirds given its northern location, but certain hummers’ ranges like that of the rufous hummingbird do stretch as far north as Alaska.