The hummingbird is to the bird world what the helicopter is to aviation. The tiny bird -- which tops out at 20 grams (less than an ounce) -- not only can fly on every axis, but also hover in midair. This incredible flying ability makes hummingbirds one of the most fascinating birds to watch. You'll catch sight of a wild hummingbird in the Americas -- anywhere from Alaska to Brazil. Some Mexican hummingbirds will migrate north for spring, flying up to 500 miles in 20 hours without a break [source: National Geographic].
Hummingbirds almost never stop moving, and they spend nearly all of their time in the air. Their legs are so small and weak, they typically can't walk at all. But in the air, they're masters. Hummingbirds beat their wings up to 80 times a second, which creates the soft humming sound that earns them their name [source: National Geographic]. Their heart can beat up to 1,300 times per minute while in flight [source: Defenders of Wildlife]. All of this lightning-fast beating takes its toll: Hummingbirds have to eat every couple of minutes. They consume enormous amounts of pollen, using a string-thin, long tongue to draw pollen out of deep flowers. As with everything else on the hummingbird, that tongue is lightning fast, carrying a load of pollen into the beak 13 times a second [source: Defenders of Wildlife].
The need to eat so much, so often, dictates much of the hummingbird's behavior. It makes the hummingbird one of the most territorial birds in the world. They'll scare off animals as large as hawks to protect their space. They'll do this by performing dramatic aerial moves that either frighten or annoy the threatening bird into flying away.
These aerial moves earn the hummingbird a unique place in the animal world. Few -- if any birds -- can match their speed and agility. They often appear to dance in the air and regularly engage in complex aerial displays, sometimes to defend their territory and sometimes to impress the opposite sex. Two hummingbirds might even bounce around in the air together.
It makes sense that hummingbirds would mate midair -- they do everything else in the air, and their legs are all but useless. They could probably pull it off, too, what with their ability to hover. But do these birds actually copulate in flight? Find out in the next section.
Sex in Midair?
When a male hummingbird is courting a female, he'll do some insane aerial moves to show her how strong, controlled and just generally fantastic he is. On occasion, if the female enjoys the show, she'll starting moving in the air with him. This can sometimes look like they're actually mating in the air, because they can get very close. In fact, hummingbirds often get right up in each other's faces. Male hummingbirds will do a sort of "dance off" when fighting over territory, and several hummingbirds will get together to chase off an outsider.
Appearances aside, hummingbirds don't actually mate in midair. Their legs may not be able to walk or bounce, but they can perch. Hummingbirds are able to stand on branches, and that's where they copulate. After a female accepts a talented suitor, she'll perch on a branch and wait for the male to mount her from behind. About four seconds later, they leave each other and never look back [source: World of Hummingbirds]. The male goes to look for another female to mate with, and the female goes off to build a nest.
Probably the most fascinating part of the mating ritual is the initial courtship activity. Males go to serious lengths to impress females. A male hummingbird will dance and sing. He'll perform what's referred to as a courtship dive, which seems like a scary display but seems to go far with the hummingbird ladies. Flying up to 60 feet (18.28 meters) in the air, the male bird will suddenly arc and head straight down, flying in a beeline for the female [source: World of Hummingbirds]. When he's within inches of her head -- still at full speed -- he'll pull up, flying back to 60 feet and starting all over again. When the female is suitably impressed with the dive, she'll go wait on a perch.
Female hummingbirds are picky about their mates. It can sometimes get to be quite a competition. Male hummingbirds have been known to get together and serenade a female, each trying to win her attention. When she does show attention to one of the males, the courtship dive or other midair dances begin, and the other birds give up and fly away.
Just because hummingbirds don't mate in midair, though, doesn't mean nobody does. White-throated swifts, birds native to the American West, sometimes copulate while falling through the air of a canyon [source: Stanford]. A pair of great gray garden slugs will also mate in midair -- while hanging from a cord of slime [source: OSU].
For more information on hummingbirds, midair activity and related topics, fly to the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Copulation. Stanford University Birds. http://www.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Copulation.html
- Flight of Fancy. National Geographic Magazine. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0701/feature4/
- Hummingbird Behavior. World of Hummingbirds. http://www.worldofhummingbirds.com/behavior.php
- Hummingbirds. Defenders of Wildlife. http://www.defenders.org/wildlife_and_habitat/wildlife/hummingbirds.php
- Hummingbirds. Enchanted Learning. http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/birds/printouts/Hummerprintout.shtml
- Spotted leopard slug. Oregon State University Horticulture Department. http://oregonstate.edu/dept/nurspest/Limaxmaximus.htm