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NATURE: Super Hummingbirds

Airs Wednesday, June 5, 2019 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Chestnut-breasted coronet (<em>Boissonneaua matthewsii</em>) drinks from a fl...

Credit: Courtesy of Ann Johnson Prum/© THIRTEENProductions LLC

Above: Chestnut-breasted coronet (Boissonneaua matthewsii) drinks from a flower in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. Mino, Ecuador.

An Exploration into the Fast-paced World of Super Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are amazing creatures to behold. They are the tiniest of birds, yet possess natural born super powers that enable them to fly backwards, upside-down, and float in mid-air.

Their wings beat faster than the eye can see and the speed at which they travel makes people wonder if it was indeed a hummingbird they actually saw.

They also are only found in the Americas. These attributes have both intrigued scientists and made it challenging to study the species, but with the latest high-speed cameras and other technologies, “Super Hummingbirds” reveals new scientific breakthroughs about these magical birds.

Super Hummingbirds | Preview

Using the latest high-speed cameras and other technologies, "Super Hummingbirds" reveals new scientific breakthroughs about these magical birds.

Emmy-winning filmmaker Ann Johnson Prum (“Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air”; “An Original DUCKumentary,” “Animal Homes”) returns with her second film on hummers which presents new scientific discoveries such as how they drink a flower’s nectar so quickly or why they are able to thrive in the thin air at high altitudes.

For the first time, viewers will see the birds mate, lay eggs, fight, and raise families in intimate detail.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Ann Johnson Prum/© THIRTEENProductions LLC

Brown violetear (Colibri delphinae) hovers before dipping in to feed on a flower. Cosanga, Ecuador.

The film begins with the research of Dr. Alejandro Rico-Guevara, who returned to his native Colombia after getting his doctorate at the University of Connecticut (he’s currently a postdoctoral researcher at University of California at Berkeley), to determine how a hummer is able to lap up nectar inside a flower at a rate of 20 times a second.

A hummingbird spends its days darting from flower to flower to drink the nectar so vital to fueling its metabolism to keep it in the air.

To solve the mystery, Rico-Guevara mounted a real flower onto a clear feeding tube containing the same amount of nectar found in a genuine bloom.

After attracting a hummer to the test site, high-speed macro photography revealed that the hummingbird’s long tongue has forked tips that open as the tongue dips into the nectar.

Secret of the Hummingbird's Tongue

Instead of drinking through a straw-like structure, as many insects do, hummingbirds use their tongues' to lap up nectar. In just a second or so, a hummer can drink up all the liquid a flower has to offer. High-speed macro photography has now revealed how they do it.

Grooves are created along the edges of the open tips that collect and fill the tongue with nectar. Identifying this highly efficient means to drink nectar so rapidly was a scientific breakthrough never seen before.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Mark Carroll/© THIRTEENProductions LLC

White-vented plumeleteer (Chalybura buffonii) drinks nectar from a test tube that biologist Alejandro Rico-Guevara has designed to measure the amount of liquid it can drink with each visit. Fuse, Colombia.

“Super Hummingbirds” also chronicles a major discovery by Dr. Christopher Witt and his University of New Mexico team high in the Peruvian Andes where oxygen is 40 percent more scarce than it is at sea level.

Tests were conducted on hummers living at high altitudes to determine how little oxygen they needed to fly and the results were impressive.

For example, only when the oxygen level reached six percent did the sparkling violetear reach her limit which is an altitude equivalent of 43,000 feet.

Witt discovered that a protein called hemoglobin, which humans also have in our blood, has evolved in each hummingbird species to match its elevation.

He also found that these flower feeders are able to fly at such dazzling speeds due to an ability to capture extra oxygen with every breath, a true super power.

Hummingbirds Battle in the Air

Hummingbirds sometimes use their unmatched flying skills for something other than feeding on flowers--for fighting over them. Flowers in full bloom are a call to arms. It’s fight and flight – a display of skill and fiery tempers.

In the rainforests of Costa Rica, Dr. Marcelo Araya-Salas of Cornell University has spent seven years studying and recording the vocal stylings and mating rituals of Long-billed hermit hummingbirds.

As the film shows, male hermits gather in a place called a lek to attract and compete for females by singing and performing elaborate choreography.

After shooting more than 2,000 hours of footage, Araya-Salas caught his first video of hummingbirds mating, one of the first times it has ever been filmed.

Costa's Hummingbird Dances to Woo Mate

Spring is the time to nest for the Costa's hummingbirds, before the desert gets too hot. Both males and females are looking for a partner, but it's up to him to impress her. Though his back shimmers with green, it’s not until we get her point of view that we see his true splendor. He flexes the iridescent feathers of his mantle until they become a glowing mask of violet.

The documentary then concludes with a life cycle of super hummingbirds, from the nest-building, to the motherhood, to the first flight!

Hummers may be the smallest birds in the world, but what they lack in size, they make up in speed and the ability to adapt in ways we’re just beginning to learn about as they continue to evolve.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Ann Johnson Prum/© THIRTEENProductions LLC

Green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula) eyes an approaching hummingbird. Mindo, Ecuador.


This full episode is available for streaming on demand with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members ($60 yearly) using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.


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NATURE is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET. For NATURE, Fred Kaufman is executive producer. “Super Hummingbirds” is a production of Coneflower Productions and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. Narrated by Patricia Clarkson.


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