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Hummingbirds—Float Like a Butterfly, Pollinate Like a Bee

by  Matthew Vanhorn

Small, vibrant, and fast like lightning, the hummingbird is one of the most breathtaking creatures on Earth. The hummingbird derives its name from its rapid wing flap of over 150 beats per second. The amazingly fast wing strokes generate an audible, characteristic “hum.” Hummingbirds often are described as nature’s helicopters, because they can perform all the maneuvers of a helicopter—they can hover, take off and land vertically, and fly backward.

The hummingbird can perform incredible aerial feats. It needs special maneuvering skills in order to eat the nectar of flowers—its main diet. The hummingbird can move forward to pierce a flower, hover until it gets enough nectar, and then fly backward to remove its bill from the flower. Consider the advanced features that allow the hummingbird to fly.

First, the hummingbird has a unique wing structure, in which the upper- and forewings are small and rigid. The wings consist almost entirely of feathers and muscles. Despite its diminutive size, the hummingbird has proportionately huge wing muscles that make up just less than half of the bird’s body weight. Even though the wings are rigid, the hummingbird’s shoulders are extremely flexible, allowing the bird to manipulate its wings in any contortion, and to achieve every conceivable flight trajectory.

Closely related to its wing structure is its wing movement. Because of the hummingbird’s ability to vary its wing angles, it executes remarkable wing movements that no other bird can. As a result, the hummingbird’s flight does not resemble that of any other bird; instead, it flies much like a bumblebee. Most birds flap their wings up and down, like paddles on hinges. The hummingbird, however, does not flap its wings up and down, but forward and backward, allowing the bird to generate lift on both the forward and backward wing strokes.

The hummingbird employs three types of flight—hovering, forward flight, and backward flight. When the bird is hovering, its wings move in a figure-eight pattern, which enables the bird to remain stationary in a vertical, horizontal, or oblique bodily tilt. The figure-eight pattern is essential, because it allows the bird to maintain equilibrium, rather than producing lift during the forward and returning paths of the wings. For the bird to hover, it must maintain a wing movement of 50 beats per second. Fifty wing beats per second is impressive, but it does not compare to the jaw-dropping 200 wing beats per second that a hummingbird can achieve during acceleration. To achieve backward thrust, the hummingbird moves its wings in a circular path above its head.

Next, consider the hummingbird’s high metabolic rates. The hummingbird’s metabolic rate is extremely high, even when compared with other flying birds. In fact, the hummingbird’s metabolic rate is far higher than that of any other vertebrate. A hummingbird’s heart makes up about four percent of its total body weight, which is the largest relative size of any animal. Its heart usually beats 500 times per minute when it is at rest, and 1,200 times a minute during activity. Because of its rapid metabolic rate, the hummingbird requires the high, twenty-five percent sugar energy content of nectar, upon which it must feed every ten minutes. The hummingbird is active only about 12 hours each day, yet it still eats twice its own body weight in food. The Vancouver Sun reported: “To keep up their blistering lifestyle, hummingbirds, of both sexes, burn up huge amounts of calories—the equivalent [for humans] of 1,300 hamburgers a day, washed down with 60 litres of water, used mainly for cooling purposes” (as quoted in Dreves, 1992). John Morton, of Wildbirds Unlimited in Vancouver, Canada, was quoted in the same article: “Were we to operate at their energy level, our hearts would beat 1,260 times a minute, our body temperature would rise to 385 C and we would burst into flames” (as quoted in Dreves).

Take a quick review. For the hummingbird to survive, it must be able to fly forward to its food source—the flowers; it has to hover in order to suck the nectar from the flowers; and it must be able to fly backward to get its beak out of the flower, all the while sustaining the highest metabolic rate among vertebrates. Additionally, the hummingbird has a specialized feeding tube to suck the nectar from the flower. The hummingbird has been equipped with a long, needle-like bill which is able to penetrate deep into the flowers and extract the nectar. If the corolla of the flower is too long, the sharp bill can pierce it at the base to gain access. The hummingbird also is equipped with a long tongue, which is curled at the edges, forming two troughs that hold nectar. Once the bird pierces the stigmata of the flower and finds the nectar, it retracts its tongue to the back of its head, where it squeezes the nectar into its throat.

Consider how the hummingbird is described by the keeper of tropical birds at the London Zoo: “A hummingbird may be better depicted as a hybrid helicopter/jet fighter which has a huge, highly tuned and fuel-injected engine. The structure of the wing of the hummingbird is quite unlike that of every other of the 9,000 or so bird species” (as quoted in Burgess, 2000, p. 105). Stuart Burgess, author of Hallmarks of Design, remarked:

Evolution cannot explain how a forward flying bird could suddenly become a bird that instantly possessed all of the complex apparatus necessary for hovering and extracting nectar from flowers. Without the complete hovering capability and feeding capability, a would-be hummingbird would perish (p. 105).

CONCERNING THE COEVOLUTION OF
HUMMINGBIRDS AND FLOWERS

Evolutionists were leaping for joy. David Perlman, science editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote an article titled “Birds, Flowers Found to Evolve for Each Other. Beaks, Foliage Change to Ease Pollination.” Perlman reported that two biologists, studying the lives of hummingbirds and flowers on the Caribbean islands of St. Lucia and Dominica, had discovered “a remarkable example of animals and plants that evolve to meet each other’s needs” (2003). The scientists’ “proof ” was that, allegedly, the beaks of birds had developed in size and shape so that they could pollinate the flowers, while the flowers had developed in color and shape to accommodate the evolving bird beaks. One of the researchers, W. John Kress, a botanist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, said: “We can’t really say which came first. Over time, both the bills of the birds and the structure of the flowers adapted to each other.” Still, Kress confidently asserted: “It’s the most convincing evidence for this kind of evolution that I’ve ever seen. The only thing better would be if I could live for a million years and watch it actually happen” (2003).

Robert Colwell, a biologist at the University of Connecticut, remarked: “This is one of those pieces of evidence that gives me the chills, it’s so cool. It’s a beautiful piece of work,” (2003). What is this “evidence”? It is based on research performed in the Caribbean by Kress and Ethan Temeles. The researchers observed two species of plants, called Heliconia, and a type of hummingbird known as the purple-throated carib—the only pollinator of the Heliconia flowers.

The two researchers noted that the beaks of the male and female hummingbirds were markedly different. The beak of the male carib is short and virtually straight, while the beak of the (smaller) female is 30 percent longer than the male’s, and curved much more sharply. Likewise, the Heliconia grow in two distinct forms. In one, the bracts (leaf-like growths) that surround their blossoms and hold rainwater are bright red. In the other form, the bracts are green or yellow-green. Perlman reported:

At the same time, the two varieties of Heliconia have evolved different shapes. One fits the short straight bills that the male hummingbirds use to feed, while also pollinating the flowers more effectively—a maneuver that assures their reproduction. As of the female hummingbirds, their long curved beaks have evolved to fit easily into the deep, curved shape of the other Heliconia form, while the bracts of that plant have evolved so the females earn a good meal as they pollinate (2003).

The two researchers concluded: “Feeding preferences have driven their co-adaption.” Douglas Altshuler and Christopher Clark concurred with the conclusions of Kress and Temeles in an article in Science titled “Darwin’s Hummingbirds.” “Hummingbird and Heliconia engage in a coevolutionary dance with flower shape evolving in response to hummingbird bills, and bill shape evolving in response to flower shape” (as quoted in Perlman, 2003).

So, there you have it. The Heliconia plant can be pollinated only by a hummingbird with a special beak that fits the flower perfectly. That is the “proof ” that flowers evolve to fit birds’ beaks, and that birds’ beaks, in turn, evolve to fit flowers. Did Kress and Temeles stop to think about what they were saying? Heliconia are pollinated only by these unique hummingbirds who subsist solely on Heliconia, and yet they “co-evolved” over a period of “a million years” according to Kress. For this to work, Heliconia and the purple-throated carib would have had to evolved in the exact same location at the exact same era, at the exact same pace!

What is the probability that a flower could evolve over thousands of years, being pollinated by a single, hovering creature with a specialized tubular tongue, and a long, slender, curving beak that matched the structure of the flower perfectly? Impossible! I must concur with Robert Colwell (though with a somewhat different sentiment). “This is one of those pieces of evidence that gives me the chills, it’s so cool. It’s a beautiful piece of work.” Indeed, it is a beautiful piece of work—a work that could be achieved only by the hands of Almighty God. As Job said to his three friends, “But now ask the beast, and they will teach you, and the birds of the air, and they will tell you…that the hand of the Lord has done this” (Job 12:7,9).

REFERENCES

Burgess, Stuart (2000), Hallmarks of Design (Surrey, England: Day One Publications).

Dreves, Denis (1992), “The Hummingbird—God’s Tiny Miracle,” [On-line], URL: http://www.answersingenesis.org/docs/1220.asp.

Perlman, David (2003), “Birds, Flowers Found to Evolve for Each Other. Beaks, Foliage Change to Ease Pollination,” [On-line], URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/articled.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/04/25/MN233097.DTL.




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