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Outdoors just for kids 1-19-12

Hummingbirds are amazing little creatures only 3 to 5 inches tall. About 15 species of hummingbirds live in the western United States.

If you’ve ever seen the tiny birds, you know they are fast fliers — averaging 20 to 30 mph and capable of diving at speeds up to 60 mph. One of the reasons they can fly so fast is that their wings beat an amazing 12 to 80 times a second, depending on the species.

In fact, the sound of its fast-beating wings is how the hummingbird got its name. The bird’s wings are also remarkable because they allow them to fly backwards, as well as forward, and hover like a helicopter.

As if all of this wasn’t amazing enough, researchers have also found out something else that’s cool about hummingbirds. As you may know, hummingbirds have long beaks that they use to sip nectar from flowers. Some people hang hummingbird feeders filled with sugary liquid so they can watch the birds. But did you also know that hummingbirds will eat bugs, too? And their beaks are especially adapted to snap shut very, very quickly to catch bugs.

A hummingbird’s lower beak is stiff, yet springy like a diving board. When a hummingbird zooms in on a small bug, it opens its beak to eat and the beak automatically snaps shut in less than a hundredth of a second — quicker than the blink of an eye.

The quick-snapping beak is important to the bird’s being able to capture tiny bugs, since it takes about 300 fruit flies a day for a hummingbird to survive. With a fast-closing beak, the birds have more success catching bugs.

The phenomenon that creates the hummingbird’s fast-closing beak is known as snap buckling. The Venus flytrap, a type of plant that eats bugs, also uses snap buckling to capture insects. And cicadas, an insect found in the Billings area that you often hear making a lot of noise on summer nights, also use snap buckling on their ribs to make that annoying sound. But as far as researchers know, hummingbirds are the only animal with a backbone to use snap buckling.

It’s just one more reason to admire the feisty little hummingbird.

— Brett French,

Gazette Outdoors editor

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.