Hummingbirds are fast, small and seem to remain within sight for only mere seconds. There are seventeen species in North America and a total of 339 worldwide, according to Ruby Throat. They display an array of vibrant colors, produce many different distinct sounds, and live and migrate all over the world. Certain details of their behavior and anatomy will help identify a particular species.
An accurate description of a hummingbird begins with its species. According to Hummingbird World, there are seventeen species that breed in North America, the most common and well-recognized being the ruby-throated hummingbird. The species will determine where that type of hummingbird lives, when and where they migrate, what color their feathers are and other unique features, such as whether they sing.
To identify the species and sex of a hummingbird you must look at its gorget, crown, tail and bill. The gorget is the brightly colored throat area that occurs only in male hummingbirds. The crown is a brightly colored area on the forehead that occurs only in some species. The size, color and patterns on the tail feathers also help to identify the species. Some species of hummingbird have very long bills, while others are short. A few species have bright red bills. See Resources for a state by state list of hummingbirds.
Most birds use the power of their downstroke to fly. The hummingbird, in contrast, can fly in either direction, up or down, and even backwards or upside down. When you see a hummingbird “hovering,” you're actually seeing the bird flap its wings horizontally in a figure eight about 50 times per second. Hummingbirds have tiny feet that are useless for walking, so they must fly even the shortest distances. Although they fly very fast, their light weight enables them to make sudden stops, which prevents them from hurting themselves on landing.
Much as they appear to the human eye, hummingbirds are fast creatures with a fast breathing rate, fast heartbeat, high body temperature and a need to feed every ten minutes 24 hours a day. The majority of the hummingbird's diet is sugar, which they get from flower nectar and tree sap. For protein, they consume insects and pollen. A hummingbird will remember where its feeding source is located, even if it was discovered years ago. As the hummingbird feeds on a flower, it will “accidentally” collect pollen and help spread it from flower to flower.
Hummingbirds communicate visually. Though they may produce shrill sounds, males raise the feathers around their gorget and shake their heads from side to side. Females typically perch and spread their tail feathers, revealing a white tip. Males male also use a dive display to communicate. While making a dramatic U-shaped dive, the male will make whizzing, popping or whistling sounds. These dramatic displays are part of the courtship ritual between two mature hummingbirds.