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Fast and Furious

Hummingbirds may look sweet, but they use their long pointy beaks to hunt and fight

Arthur Morris/Getty Images

When Alejandro Rico-Guevara was in middle school, he was obsessed with spiders. There were plenty to find in the forests around his hometown of Bogotá, Colombia. But to capture the most elusive spiders, he paired up with more adept hunters: hummingbirds. “They’re so bold,” he says, “and they could find spiders I couldn’t.”

When Alejandro Rico-Guevara was in middle school, he was obsessed with spiders. He liked looking for them in the forests around his hometown of Bogotá, Colombia. But some spiders were hard to spot. So Rico-Guevara learned to follow some better hunters: hummingbirds. “They’re so bold,” he says. “They could find spiders I couldn’t.”

Anand Varma/Courtesy of Alejandro Rico-Guevara

Alejandro Rico-Guevara filming birds in Colombia

Later, Rico-Guevara switched from hunting spiders to studying hummingbirds, and he has discovered some unexpected things about them. Hummingbirds are best known as tiny birds that use their long beaks and tongues to sip nectar. But they have big personalities, he says—and an aggressive streak. They hunt flies, spiders, and wasps by curving their slender beaks open to trap their prey.

Rico-Guevara’s research has also uncovered another use for those long beaks: battle. Male hummingbirds use their beaks like swords to fight each other for mates. Some species have tiny teeth on their bills that can be used to rip at the feathers of another bird. “You think of them like a little fragile thing,” he says, “but you see them fencing superfast in battle.”

Rico-Guevara doesn’t search for spiders anymore. But he does study hummingbirds professionally. And he has discovered some surprising things about them. Hummingbirds are best known for using their long beaks and tongues to sip nectar. But the tiny birds are also fierce hunters, says Rico-Guevara. They hunt flies, spiders, and wasps by using their thin beaks to trap their prey.

Rico-Guevara has also discovered another way hummingbirds use their long beaks. Male hummingbirds use them like swords to fight each other for mates. Some species even have tiny teeth on their bills. They use them to rip at the feathers of another bird. “You think of [a hummingbird] like a little fragile thing,” says Rico-Guevara. “But you see them fencing superfast in battle.”

Although he started out as a general biologist, Rico-Guevara now specializes in biomechanics. He studies how the birds are built and why they move the way they do. Sometimes he uses traditional methods like capturing the birds in mesh nets to measure them. But Rico-Guevara has also found a way to bring a lab to the birds. On a coffee farm halfway up the Andes Mountains in Colombia, Rico-Guevara has set up a special lab with slow-motion cameras attached to high-tech feeders. The scientific gear attached to the feeders take measurements of the birds’ bodies, rate of sipping nectar, and more. The researchers leave the windows open and the hummingbirds fly right into the lab to participate in the research, then flitter away.

The feisty birds know the lab is human territory but are unfazed. Unlike many other animals, hummingbirds are not scared of people, because they are fast enough to get away, says Rico-Guevara. “Our world is in slow motion for them.”

Rico-Guevara started his career as a general biologist. But now he specializes in biomechanics, or how animals are built and why they move the way they do. To study wild hummingbirds, scientists usually need to do things like capture the birds in mesh nets. Rico-Guevara does this sometimes. But he has also found a way to bring a lab right to the birds. Rico-Guevara has set up a special lab on a coffee farm halfway up the Andes Mountains in Colombia. He put up high-tech feeders with slow-motion cameras attached. When a bird lands on the feeder, a the attached equipment takes measurements of the birds’ bodies. It also detects things like how fast the birds sip nectar. Researchers at the lab leave the windows open. The hummingbirds fly right into the lab to participate in the research, then fly away after they eat.

The birds know the lab is human territory, says Rico-Guevara. But that doesn’t bother them. Unlike many other animals, hummingbirds are not scared of people. They know they’re fast enough to get away, Rico-Guevara says. “Our world is in slow motion for them.”

Write and evaluate expressions based on data about hummingbirds. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Write and evaluate expressions based on data about hummingbirds. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

A. The bee hummingbird is the smallest species. It weighs about w grams. The giant hummingbird is the largest, weighing about 10 times as much. Write an expression to find the weight of a giant hummingbird.

A. The bee hummingbird is the smallest species. It weighs about w grams. The giant hummingbird is the largest, weighing about 10 times as much. Write an expression to find the weight of a giant hummingbird.

B. Evaluate the expression: A bee hummingbird weighs 1.7 grams.

B. Evaluate the expression: A bee hummingbird weighs 1.7 grams.

A. A hummingbird’s heart beats about 1,250 beats per minute while flying. That’s h beats per minute faster than at rest. Write an expression for how many times its heart beats per minute while at rest.

A. A hummingbird’s heart beats about 1,250 beats per minute while flying. That’s h beats per minute faster than at rest. Write an expression for how many times its heart beats per minute while at rest.

B. Evaluate it: Its heartbeat is 1,000 beats per minute faster while flying than at rest.

B. Evaluate it: Its heartbeat is 1,000 beats per minute faster while flying than at rest.

A. Ruby-throated hummingbirds take about 20 hours to travel the m miles from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to their breeding grounds in Florida. Write an expression to find the average speed at which they travel in miles per hour.

A. Ruby-throated hummingbirds take about 20 hours to travel the m miles from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to their breeding grounds in Florida. Write an expression to find the average speed at which they travel in miles per hour.

B. Evaluate it: The distance they travel is about 500 miles.

B. Evaluate it: The distance they travel is about 500 miles.

A. Rico-Guevara’s feeders take pictures of the birds’ tongues sticking out as they sip nectar. A hummingbird’s beak is b millimeters long and its tongue sticks out t millimeters past its beak. Write an expression to find out the total length of its beak and tongue that sticks out.

A. Rico-Guevara’s feeders take pictures of the birds’ tongues sticking out as they sip nectar. A hummingbird’s beak is b millimeters long and its tongue sticks out t millimeters past its beak. Write an expression to find out the total length of its beak and tongue that sticks out.

B. Evaluate it: A Rufous-tailed hummingbird’s beak is 20 millimeters long and its tongue sticks out 8 millimeters.

B. Evaluate it: A Rufous-tailed hummingbird’s beak is 20 millimeters long and its tongue sticks out 8 millimeters.

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