Hummingbirds are one of nature’s great curiosities. They are beautiful and unusual creatures, and we don’t know as much about them as we should. In fact, some of what we know about them was thought to be true, but we now know to be a falsehood. Have you ever wondered why and how hummingbirds drink? This is a question that people have studied and debated over the years.
In fact, for years we actually had the wrong theory about this, and it’s only within the last thirty years or so that we have started to look at things differently. Understanding how these birds drink is a huge part of understanding their lifestyle and their existence. So, let’s take a look at what we know vs. what we know.
The original theory
The original theory about how hummingbirds drink is one that has been around since as far back as 1833. Now, this should probably point to some potential flaws in the theory, but, nevertheless, this was the accepted explanation. It was thought that hummingbirds drink through their long tongues by what’s known as capillary action. This is where the tongue forks into two tubes and they passively draw water into them, much in the same way that kitchen towel soaks up water. The problem is, this is too long a process to be logical for hummingbirds, and it would also mean they would find it easier drinking from downward pointing flowers – which isn’t the case. Well, it took Margaret Rubega hearing this theory as a student in the ‘80s, before we worked toward debunking it.
Margaret realized the flaws in the theory and felt that there had to be an alternative, better explanation. She felt, as a graduate student, that she didn’t have the authority or resources to investigate further; but this changed when she became a professor at the University of Connecticut. It was here she teamed up with Alejandro Rico-Guevara, and they set to work trying to study hummingbirds and the way they drank. They built glass flowers so they could film through the back, and took frame-by-frame shots of hummingbirds drinking from the artificial flower. This led to some pretty amazing discoveries and put paid to the original theory that Rubega had been skeptical of.
The way it works is that the birds put out their tube tongues, and use their beaks to compress them and squeeze them flat. They stay compressed until the tongue hits the nectar, and they then open, allowing the nectar to rush inside. They also discovered that the two tubes separated from one another, taking on a forklike appearance. This stunning revelation has changed what we know about hummingbirds and the way they drink, and it was right under our noses the whole time. And, the most amazing thing about it is that it’s passive, and the bird doesn’t force it at all – the nectar just flows naturally into its tongue.
This game-changer could also change the way we think about other animals and their behavioral habits. There are so many things to think about in that respect, and it’s intriguing to think that theories surrounding hummingbirds have been wrong for so long. Now we know how these birds drinks, what else is there about them that we didn’t know?