To date, we know about 377 different species of hummingbirds. The vast majority are found in various habitats in Central and South America. Distinguishing between species takes some practice, as the differences are often subtle. However, the species I’m going to introduce to you today is an exception. You only need to see it once, and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life. It is the Sword-Billed Hummingbird.
What makes this species so special? You’ve probably already guessed it – the giant beak. Comparing the ratio of beak length to the rest of its body, the Sword-billed Hummingbird holds the top spot in the entire bird kingdom. The beak can reach up to 12 cm / 4.7 inches long, which is often longer than the rest of the bird’s body! (At the other end of the spectrum is the Purple-Backed Thornbill, a hummingbird with a 5 mm beak.)
Having such a beak is a complication when it comes to grooming feathers or avoiding obstacles. So, what is such a beak good for? Simply to eat. But the reality is far more interesting. The length of its beak is actually the result of long-term competition on the one hand and cooperation on the other.
Hummingbirds are mostly nectarivorous birds. Their frenetic pace of life requires an enormous supply of energy, provided by the quick sugars in plant nectar. To keep their muscles working, and to maintain their relatively high body temperature of 40 to 42° C (about 106° F), these tiny birds must eat virtually all the time.
But food supplies are limited. The consequence is that in nature, living creatures compete with each other for resources. The closer the food requirements of the two competing species, the tougher fights can be expected between them. In the following photo, I captured a Sapphire-Vented Puffleg attacking a significantly larger Sword-Billed Hummingbird while feeding.
In order not to deprive you of the whole event, which lasted no more than a fraction of a second, I merged the images into an animated GIF. You can see the Sapphire-vented Puffleg’s repeated attempt to attack the Sword-billed Hummingbird from behind. But he wasn’t taken by surprise, nimbly turning in mid-air and executing a lightning swipe with his “sword”. Although it appears in the photo that Puffleg ended up with a stabbed throat, this is not the case. Such skirmishes usually end harmlessly.
I should mention that this whole scene happened so quickly that I basically didn’t notice it in the viewfinder of my Nikon Z9. Fortunately, today’s cameras have fast enough continuous shooting that, at least in retrospect, you can enjoy dramatic moments like this.
Not all hummingbirds compete for the same food sources. Some of them have adapted beaks suited to extracting nectar from tiny flowers, others from curved flowers, and so on. Sword-billed hummingbirds have specialized in the long tubular flowers of Datura sanguinea and similar species.
But this story is far more complex. It’s not just about food, it’s also about love – plant love. Hummingbirds fulfill an important ecological function in nature as pollinators. Plants are actually competing for their attention, and thus their valuable services, in order to be pollinated.
Pollen from a Datura will only fertilize another Datura. If a hummingbird flies from a Datura to a different type of flower, the Datura won’t gain anything from the situation. So, for the plant, it is ideal to have exclusive customers, who don’t visit other types of flowers as often.
How to achieve this? It simply takes time. When one Datura plant, by chance, has slightly more elongated flowers, it is of less interest to short-beaked hummingbirds. This gives the Sword-Billed Hummingbird a more exclusive and assured source of food; meanwhile, the plant gains a loyal customer who is more likely to deliver pollen to another Datura.
Over the years, this means that the more elongated Datura and Sword-Billed Hummingbirds are more likely to survive, reproduce, and continue the cycle. Selective pressures over time elongate both species hand in hand.
Does this seem too idyllic to be the whole truth? Yes, you’re right. Other birds, including Flowerpiercers (shown above) and some hummingbirds, have learned to pierce the base of the flower with their beak to access the nectar through a side door. The plant, of course, gets nothing out of it. It is robbed of its nectar, and the precious pollen remains undelivered.
As you can see, relationships in nature are very tangled and complicated. Many of them go far beyond the boundaries set by the mutual relationship of the individual actors. This story was about the close partnership of the Sword-billed Hummingbird and Datura sanguinea. It’s fascinating to poke a nose, beak, or lens into these relationships.