There are many curious myths about hummingbirds, and one of them is that they can never stop flying. Some people even think that hummingbirds die if they stop beating their wings!
The truth, however, is much less dramatic. Just like any other bird, hummingbirds can stop flying, and there are several reasons why they need to. In this article, I’ll be explaining why.
But first, let’s find out how these myths got started in the first place!
Why People Believe Hummingbirds Can’t Stop Flying
If you’ve only ever witnessed a hummingbird buzzing busily around your garden, greedily guzzling nectar from cardinal flower to zinnia to bee balm, it would be easy to imagine that they’re incapable of taking a breather!
These busy birds never seem to stop moving around, and can feed on up to 2,000 flowers per day!
Hummingbirds are so small and discreet that we might not spot them perching, but they do need to land, and for a few very important reasons.
When Hummingbirds Need to Stop Flying
Species like the ruby-throated hummingbird and rufous hummingbird are such active birds that some people have wondered whether they stop to pause for a moment.
It may seem surprising, but according to the David Attenborough documentary ‘Hummingbirds: Jewelled Messengers,’ hummingbirds actually need to rest for 80% of the time.
Of course, this is an approximate figure and the real amount of time a hummingbird rests will depend on the species, location, and season, but the principle remains that hummingbirds need to rest a lot to conserve energy.
This is understandable, given that hummingbirds consume more energy in proportion to their body weight than any other vertebrate on Earth! Their hearts beat at a staggering 1200 beats per minute when hovering, and slow down to a mere 400 bpm when resting.
You may have heard the common myth that hummingbirds never sleep at night, but this is another popular misconception.
The truth is that hummingbirds do sleep. In fact, they go into quite a deep slumber. While some other birds only doze very lightly, hummingbirds are so busy during the day that they tend to enter a deep torpor at night to recuperate. Their heart rate slows down, and their body temperature drops significantly.
To do this, hummingbirds need to land and roost. Whereas gliding bird-like swifts can eat and sleep on the wing without touching the ground for 10 months at a time, hummingbirds need far too much energy to beat their wings to make sleeping while flying a possibility!
The typical roosting place for hummingbirds is in deciduous trees like oak, birch, or poplar. Because they’re so small and almost become dormant during the night, they prefer to thoroughly hide themselves among dense foliage.
Hummingbirds sleep so deeply that they’ll occasionally wake up in the morning hanging upside down, like a bat. After beating their wings up to 70 times per second all day, it’s hardly surprising they need some good rest!
Another myth is that hummingbirds mate on the wing. But like most other birds, they copulate while perching – typically on a tree branch.
While there are nuanced variations among species, the hummingbird’s courtship ritual typically consists of the male hovering in front of a perched female, displaying his most impressive courtship moves.
If the female is impressed, she will often hover with him, dancing in mid-air together for a while. While people sometimes confuse this with mating, this courtship dance is merely a prelude to the actual mating that takes place on a tree branch, in a matter of seconds.
It’s not a silly question to wonder whether hummingbirds mate while flying, though. There are a few species of bird that can mate while in mid-air – the prime example being the swift family which is closely related to hummingbirds.
The third reason that hummingbirds need to land is universal for every bird species in the world: Nesting.
Made from moss and other fluffy, fibrous plant material, Anna’s hummingbird ties together the loose bundle of spongy matter with spider’s web!
Female hummingbirds almost always build their nest alone, before incubating their eggs, and raising their young without any help from the male. Hummingbird eggs are truly minuscule and are often compared to jelly beans in their proportions!
Females must sit on the eggs for between 11-18 days before they hatch, only taking very occasional breaks to feed or preen. As with other birds, hummingbirds must stay sitting in their nest for the majority of the time to keep the eggs warm and facilitate their development.
Despite these lengthy periods of sitting, hummingbird nests are so tiny and well-camouflaged that few people ever find them nesting. This only further contributes to the myths that have no reason to land!
Sickness or Injury
Our final reason that hummingbirds need to land is when they’re unwell or injured.
Hummingbirds are subject to the same diseases and health conditions of other birds, but because they need to remain fit for their busy feeding schedule, even a minor infection can be fatal.
Likewise, collisions with vehicles or narrow escapes from predatory birds like hawks and falcons can leave hummingbirds with broken wings or unable to fly properly to their usual food sources.
If you find a sick or injured hummingbird, it’s important to act quickly if you wish to help it recover. Find your local wildlife rehabilitation center using this page from NWRA and call them immediately to discuss the right steps to help your feathered friend.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can hummingbirds walk on the ground?
As hummingbirds evolved millions of years ago, they shed anything from their bodies that wasn’t strictly necessary for their lightweight, nectar-eating design.
As a consequence, hummingbirds no longer have knees, so can’t walk or hop on the ground.
Why did I see a hummingbird flying at night?
One of the reasons that people might imagine that hummingbirds never sleep is because they’re occasionally seen active at night – but this is unusual behavior.
Although hummingbirds will occasionally fly during the night during migration or when disorientated by artificial lights, they usually roost among tree branches.
If you’ve seen hummingbirds regularly feeding during the night in your backyard’s flood lights, consider putting them on a timer switch or movement sensor switch to help the hummingbirds revert to their natural biological clock.
Do hummingbirds ride on geese?
Some people were so astonished that tiny hummingbirds could really migrate across continents that they had to come up with other explanations for the miraculous feat.
One of the most elaborate stories to explain this was that hummingbirds ride on migrating geese! Amazingly, this idea won a significant following and it soon became popular folklore that hummingbirds do indeed hitch-hike geese.
There’s no reality to this theory, however. It may remain even more incredible and inspiring that hummingbirds really do migrate vast distances under their own steam.
Do hummingbirds only feed on nectar?
The most common place to see hummingbird species in the garden is when they’re feeding on nectar from tubular flowers or sugar syrup from a backyard feeder.
Fewer people realize that hummingbirds also eat a significant number of insects and invertebrates. They’ll even occasionally feed on tree sap that’s oozing from a tree previously drilled by a woodpecker!
Whatever they’re feeding on, hummingbirds almost always eat while hovering. This means they need to eat at least half their body weight in bugs and nectar each day to fuel their massive energy expenditure through the day.
Even though hummingbirds really are some of the busiest birds in the world, they still need to take a break from time to time! In fact, when hummingbirds do rest, they often do so more deeply than other birds to recover from their epic daily activities.
Hummingbird-friendly flowers and hummingbird feeders are a great way to encourage these tiny birds to visit your backyard and fuel up for their high-energy lifestyle.