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Considering Hummingbird tongues

Via DC Birding Blog

A new study from the University of Connecticut and recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences changes the way we think about hummingbird morphology, specifically their tongues.

Since 1833, apparently the last time hummingbird tongues were considered, ornithologists assumed that hummingbirds fed using capillary action.  In short, it was thought that they curl their tongues into tubes and passively draw liquid nectar into their mouths with the help of surface tension.  This practice is well-documented in other bird families.  Dabbling ducks and many species of shorebirds, for instance, use capillary action as well, but as a means to feed upon invertebrates in water rather than the liquid itself.  It was assumed that hummingbirds were no different, but what really happens is far more interesting.

Hummingbird tongue Researchers photographed 30 hummingbirds of 10 species as they drank from a feeder, and what they found was amazing.  As it turns out, hummingbird tongues are covered in tiny bristles that expand like nets when the tongue is inserted in a flower or feeder, trapping the liquid and pulling it into the hummingbird's mouth.  It looks a little like a bottle brush.  See a photo illustrating the extended tongue ((c) Alejandro Rico-Guevara) to the left. 

It's a remarkable adaptation, especially in that it requires no additional energy for the bird as, according to the report, simply brushing the tongue past the surface of the liquid is enough to capture nectar. 

Fantastic stuff, and something to think about when the little birds visit your feeders.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
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