“Look Ma, no hands!” Ok, hummingbirds don’t have hands, but they do have beaks or bills. Depending on who you are, these terms can be used to mean the same thing. Ornithologists will typically use the term bills while “us regular folk” say beaks.
Hummingbirds use their beaks for various purposes: eating, drinking, cleaning, building nests, feeding their young, and even defending themselves and food sources. However, the beak is the hummingbird’s most important feature for survival. So let’s delve into this “swiss army knife” of a body part.
Do Hummingbirds Open Their Beaks?
Hummingbirds open their beak for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the beak is barely open, like drinking nectar. And at other times, the beak is wide open, allowing for the capture of insects.
As you watch a hummingbird at a feeder, you immediately notice their long needle-like beak but rarely have a chance to see the beak in the open position. The hummingbird beak is extremely functional for all types of deeds. Let’s first see how the beak works.
How Does A Hummingbird’s Beak Work?
Warning: Science talk to follow.
From the research work and use of high-speed video, Gregor M. Yanega and Margaret A. Rubega discovered the hummingbird could widen the lower mandible near their mouth, resulting in a downward bend by as much as 20 degrees.
This mandible flexion is only used to catch insects. The most successful catches occur at the gape of the mouth instead of at the tip because it makes it easier for the insect to enter the mouth for consumption.
Yanega and Rubega also noticed something else. Once the mandible reached its max bend capability, it would suddenly snap closed. Yanega stated, “Their beaks snap shut in less than a hundredth of a second.” After teaming with Matthew Smith and Andy Ruina from Cornell University, it was discovered:
“that the downward bend of the hummingbird’s lower beak puts stress on the bone, storing elastic energy which eventually powers its sudden snap closure” “While other insect-eating birds such as swifts and nighthawks have a cartilaginous hinge near the base of their beaks, hummingbird beaks are solid bone. They’re also incredibly thin,” Yanega said. “This makes their lower beaks stiff yet springy, like a diving board.”Science News July 20, 2011
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)
How Long Is a Hummingbird’s Beak?
In general, in proportion to its body, a hummingbird’s beak is longer than the beak of other bird species. This is needed to reach the nectar in the flowers. But the answer to this question is really dependant on what species we are discussing.
The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has a beak measuring approximately 5/8 Inch – 13/16 Inch (15mm – 20mm). Sword-billed hummingbird has a bill that reaches up to approximately 3.9 inches (10 cm) (almost as long as its entire body 5.1 – 5.5 inches (13 -14 cm).
What Are Hummingbird Beaks Made Of?
A hummingbird beak is made of solid bone with a covering of keratin. The keratin gives the beak a glossy appearance. Over time the keratin will wear but is naturally replaced with new layers, so the beak stays sharp, shiny, and smooth.
The keratin coating also allows easier cleaning of their beak as they swipe (rub) their beak against a twig or branch to remove dirt or pollen.
Why Do Hummingbirds Open Their Beaks?
Sometimes while watching hummingbirds at your feeder, you may occasionally see one perched with their beak partially open. Like other species of birds, this is a cooling technique if the weather is sweltering.
They also open their beaks to catch insects, so keep watching, and you may get to witness the catch.
What Is The Purpose Of a Hummingbird’s Beak?
As you can tell, a hummingbird’s beak is incredibly unique and well adapted to perform various jobs. This thin, long, needle-like beak is without question the most important feature for a hummingbird’s survival.
It is used to eat, drink, clean, build nests, feed their young, and even defend themselves against predators.
Different species of hummingbirds have differently designed beaks. The beak’s shape and length are closely tied to the type of flowers they feed on and visit. So basically, type of flower equals beak type, but there is a caveat.
Evidence has shown that in some male species, their beaks are shorter with sharp teeth like protrusions. An example can be seen in the below video under “Beak Is For Fighting.”
Beak Is For Eating
“Yum, Yum” insects. Small insects supply the hummingbird’s need for protein. As described above (How Does A Hummingbird’s Beak Work), their beaks are remarkably designed to catch insects either by gleaning (picking insects from bark or leaves) or by hawking (catching insects while in flight).
Beak Is For Drinking
Drinking nectar by hummingbirds has been somewhat of a mystery over the years. But thanks to the research of Gregor M. Yanega and Margaret A. Rubega, we now know the remarkable way hummingbirds drink.
They have specially designed tongues that capture nectar. First, the tongue plunges into the nectar and grabs it. Then, as the tongue retracts the nectar, the beak closes down, helping extract the nectar into the mouth of the hummingbird and then down their throat. This process repeats approximately 20 times per second, according to the research.
The below video by Alejandro Rico-Guevara is very informative and SCIENCEy. Still, if you don’t watch anything else, it is worth looking at the 3:13 mark to watch the tongue in action.
Beak Is For Preening
Picture yourself getting ready and styling for a Saturday night date. You make sure your clothes look good, don’t forget to wear that trendy outfit you bought recently, and of course, let’s not forget about making sure the hair is perfect!
Hummingbirds have their own version called preening. They use the rain or another water source to clean their entire bodies. For example, splashing around and utilizing their beaks to remove dirt, debris, or any parasites.
These needle-like beaks are very handy in reaching their backs and underneath feathers to ensure they preen to perfection. This preening process is important to their survival and ensuring efficient flight.
Beak Is For Nest Building
“Ladies Only” beak section. That’s right! Only the female hummingbird builds a safe place for younglings.
The hummingbird’s nest is a masterpiece of architecture. They do this marvelous work utilizing their beaks. The female hummingbird will build beautiful, stretchy nests with spongy floors and elastic sides that grow as the younglings do.
They weave together twigs, lichen, plant fibers, and bits of leaves to create cup-shaped nests, which they then bind together using spider silk threads for support.
Watch this PBS video and see all the mastery that goes into this process.
Beak Is For Feeding Hatchlings
“Ladies Only” beak section AGAIN. Well, what can you say? The female is very hardworking in this hummingbird world, gathering nectar and insects to feed the younglings. Then, they return to the nest and use their beak to insert the food down the throats of the younglings.
This feeding continues for about three weeks. Then the younglings are on their own to use their beaks to find food.
This process can be understood better by watching this video at the 1:00 mark.
Beak Is For Fighting
“En-garde” with their beaks at the ready.
It’s all about survival. With as much as hummingbirds need to eat for survival, fighting is crucial to defend food sources. Fighting is also the way male hummingbirds claim territory. During this period of time, males can be more aggressive while fighting.
Males will be more aggressive when fighting for territory. Claiming territory sets up an area that belongs to the male and the females that mate with him. This territory allows the space for these females to feed and establish nesting spots.
Females will also joust and jab other females or males to defend their food supply. You can witness this behavior while watching your feeders, especially during the fall months when natural flower nectar is in a shorter supply.
The beginning of fighting is more like a show of aggression, first with sounds, posturing, dives, and then chasing. If these techniques don’t work, then fighting can escalate to aggression that causes injury or death.
The video below shows some of these techniques put into action; check it out!
Do Hummingbirds Ever Break Their Beaks?
Unfortunately, yes, they do. We love these little guys; it really makes us sad when we see a hummingbird hurt. Beak damage is most commonly caused by the hummingbird accidentally flying into windows, walls, or other hard surfaces.
Either the upper or lower beak or both can be damaged or broken off. With the importance of the beak in feeding, this injury can eventually lead to starvation.
The good news is that there are documented cases that have shown hummingbirds can still feed with healed beaks.
“Connie Sale, a wildlife rehabilitator in Virginia has treated several bill-injured hummers and learned that the bills can grow back if the injury is confined to the outer third of the bill and if the bird is provided with good nutrition.”An article from Hilton Pond Center October 2004
If you are unfortunate to find a hummingbird injured, try finding a wildlife rehabilitator at https://www.nwrawildlife.org/page/Found_Injured_Wildlife
The After Knowledge
If you were ever wondering if a hummingbird opens its beak, then wonder no longer because now you have the answer. It turns out that they do open their beaks, and there’s lots of interesting information about this in the above article called “Do Hummingbirds Open Their Beaks?”.
Some of the information is a little SCIENCEy. Still, mainly the article informs us about how these birds use their long curved bills to survive in nature and the astonishing capabilities of the hummingbird’s use of its beak.
Hummingbirds are small with long beaks, but they know how to “wield” their beaks very efficiently in their world for survival.