Hummingbirds are some of the most delicate and beautiful birds to exist. True to their name, these little birds create a humming sound as their wings beat seemingly at the speed of light. Amazingly, their wings can beat as quickly as 80 times per second. They captivate many people who are delighted to see one feeding outside their window. However, we don’t often question how long these precious birds live. Unlike the lifespan of other small birds, (which is generally seven years), with proper diet and little to no threats in their native environment, hummingbirds can live anywhere from 3-5 years or even up to 10 years in perfect conditions.
Where Do Hummingbirds Live?
Most people do not get to see every type of hummingbird in the wild. They are found primarily in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from southeastern Alaska to the southern portion of Chile. Beyond that, most of the 300 species of hummingbirds choose to live in the tropics. Twelve of these species choose to spend their summers in North America followed by winter in the tropics.
What Do Hummingbirds Eat?
A basic diet for a hummingbird consists of mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, spiders, and aphids, which they find on leaves. To ingest gnats, a hummingbird flies into a swarm and uses a method known as “hover hawking” which entails catching flying insects while in the air. To keep up its energy, hummingbirds drink nectar from specific flowers such as brightly colored salvia, hollyhock, and Hosta.
What makes these birds so special is their ability to sense or judge how much sugar is in nectar. If a flower contains less than 10% sugar, the hummingbird will not eat it. The sugar content must be high to nourish them. Nectar is not an ideal source of nutrients for hummingbirds which requires them also to eat insects to acquire the vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy. A hummingbird eats about half its weight in nectar each day and doesn’t spend all of its time in flight.
There are times when food is not plentiful. If for some reason food becomes difficult to find, a hummingbird can go into what is called “torpor.” This is a hummingbird’s way of conserving energy by slowing down its metabolism to 1/15th of its normal rate. It is a state that is very similar to hibernation.
At night, if a hummingbird is in torpor, its body temperature drops from 40 degrees Celsius to 18 degrees Celsius. Also, its heart rate rapidly decreases, and its body attempts to prevent dehydration by preserving glucose, water, and other nutrients.
Threats to Hummingbirds
Things that can affect the longevity of a hummingbird are habitat destruction consequent loss of food. In the past, hummingbirds were killed for their beautiful feathers. This is not the case now, but there are still many threats that these birds face. Hummingbirds tend to choose a specific habitat, and almost all of them are either listed as endangered or vulnerable. Hummingbirds have been reported to be changing their migratory flight patterns due to climate change but are more threatened by habitat loss and destruction. This abrupt change in habitat may cause hummingbirds to struggle to find food.
Hummingbirds have a very fast metabolism and live an incredible life. The first year of life is the most challenging. The period between hatchling and fledgling is the most dangerous. However, the hummingbirds that survive can actually live up to a decade or longer. The oldest hummingbird ever to be recorded was a female broad-tailed hummingbird that was banded just after its first year of life and then captured eleven years later, making her over twelve years old! Other banded hummingbirds have been recorded as living up to 10 years.
Though hummingbirds have an average lifespan of 3-5 years, there are a great many factors that can influence this. Obviously, a change of habitat can be devastating for any species. Throw in other predators or a shortage of food, and most hummingbirds won’t see much more than a few years of life. Whereas those that find a hardy supply of food and nectar will easily live for a decade or more.
To encourage longevity, many people have started to plan their gardens with flowers that specifically draw hummingbirds. Putting out hummingbird feeders and planting plants that hummingbirds love are ways to increase the longevity of these remarkable birds.