Hummingbirds: How Smart are they?



After our adventures on the highways we did make it safely to our rented home in San Tan Valley Arizona. Our first Arizona friends to visit us were the hummingbirds. They arrived the first day we were here and went directly to the same spot we had our feeder last year before we had time to set it up.  How smart is that? I don’t think anyone has fed them here for 9 months!

As we were reading in the backyard, we saw an intense aerial display that could match any of the dogfights in either of our World Wars. Two Anna’s Hummingbirds conducted this military exercise. They flew after each other for so long that mostly they had no time to dine on the nectar we provided. That is not very smart! I did get a couple of photos of one of them in one of the few moments when he stopped to drink, including the image above.

Humans have a strong tendency to think they are better and smarter than everything else. Many of us believe that God made this world for humans to rule. The world is subordinate to us. Sometimes however, humans should learn a little humility.

I have watched a few astonishing nature shows on television about hummingbirds. One of them was about  Andy Hurley and his research partner Sue Healy who study hummingbirds. In particular, they study rufous humming birds, astonishing little birds with brains the size of a grain of rice. Yet even these birds are smart–very smart. Their hearts can beat at more than a 1,000 beats per minute! Their wings beat at more than 70 times per second! All of that requires the expenditure of an enormous amount of energy. How do they get that energy? Well they need to be smart to find it.

         Hurley and Healy found that in the lab birds like this do surprising things, but not nearly as surprising as the things that the birds do in their environment. That is where their intelligence really shines. They set up a number of fake flowers for the real birds. Each a different colour. They created a pattern of cardboard disks on top of sticks or poles stuck into the ground to resemble flowers. These were artificial flowers filled with a sucrose solution that resembles nectar.  The birds were actually offered slightly better food than they would get in the wild, in order to keep them interested. “Being smart birds they recognized a good thing when they saw it.” They kept coming back for the nectar of the gods. “Not only do they see it; they remember it,” Hurley said.

Because male rufous hummingbirds are so territorial, the same bird comes back to the cafeteria over and over again. As Hurley said, “A Male rufous hummingbirds has hundreds if not thousands of flowers in its territory. As a result, he has to remember where good food is, and where he has just visited.” That takes serious smarts! As Healy said, “they seem to know where a flower is after one visit. One visit! And we are still asking ourselves how do they do it?” Remember that is one visit among hundreds or even thousands of flowers! That also takes serious smarts. No doubt this is far beyond my capacity. But that is not all. They are even smarter than that!

As David Suzuki, who presented the show, said, “Its not just bird brain power, its biology. Hummingbirds have such a high metabolism they cannot afford to waste precious energy looking for food.”

People need a meal every 3 or 4 or 5 hours. “Hummingbirds are thinking I need a meal every 10 minutes! They have to make decisions that are really important, and if they don’t do it well they die. ” If we miss MacDonald’s we can always go to Wendy’s down the street. It doesn’t much matter to us. We have the time to make mistakes and correct them. Hummingbirds don’t have the luxury of much time. They cannot make a lot of mistakes.

Hummingbirds have another big problem–that is biodiversity. Normally that is a good thing for all of us, but for hummingbirds in the wild that can be a serious obstacle. In the wild, unlike the nectar Café the scientists could create, flowers replenish their nectar at different rates. In the experiment the scientists mimicked this diversity. The question then became can the hummingbird figure out which fake flowers are empty and which are filled with sucrose solution? The scientists were shocked at how well these tiny birds with their tiny brains did in the wild.

For half the flowers, after a bird visited, the scientists waited 10 minutes before replenishing. The other half of the flowers were refilled after 20 minutes. So a bird came in, visited 3 or 4 flowers, then went away and came back 10 or 15 minutes later, and then the bird must decide which flowers have not yet given up nectar and which ones will have it already. That is no an easy test. I would not want to take this examination, particularly if my life depended on it. Hummingbirds have no choice. They take such tests every day, over and over again. As a result the scientists  saw a hummingbird that had already sipped from 2 flowers. Then when it returned it headed straight for a new one. After a day of doing this, the hummingbird had a remarkable ability to separate out the 10 minute and 20 minute flowers. The bird must treat them differently.

Scientists call this episodic memory. I am glad I heard this expression. That is because I know I will forget it. That’s because I have so little of it. “They have to remember not just the what, and the where, but the when.” As Suzuki said, “this is a cognitive skill once thought to belong only to humans.” How wrong can we get?  How stupid are we? At least in comparison to these little birds with their minute brains.

Hurley described this well, when he said, “I would need a clipboard and pencil and 8 different stop watches for hours and hours and hours. Yet the birds are able to do this, seemingly without effort. They are smarter than me.They are astonishing creatures and we have underestimated them–forever. As Healy said, “These birds have extraordinarily small brains and yet they do things that we find phenomenal.”

Naturally, that brings up an important question, ‘when it comes to brains does size matter?’  Humans are a good example of species where the size of brains does matter. Humans have very large brains for the size of their bodies and humans have an astounding capacity thanks to their brains. Well some of us at least.

The question was, ‘can a hummingbird outsmart a human?’  It seems unlikely. Andy Hurley is still amazed by hummingbirds after studying them for more than 25 years. Hurley said, “I’ve been humbled by these birds.” That was a lesson he wanted to pass on to his students. Humility is good.

Hurley did an experiment that required his students–smart University students–to forage like a hummingbird at the University of Lethbridge. He set up a memory test with candy instead of nectar. This one was to test the students. He had 8 paper cups.  4 of the paper cups were visited by students earlier. He asked the students to go to the cups that they had not yet visited to determine if they had candy hidden underneath them or not. One would think humans could do this easily. After all, humans have huge brains, and university students are thought to be the best of the best. The Students did pretty good. They got it right 75% of the time. This was the same as hummingbirds!

This made Professor Hurley say to his students, “You have brains that are 7,000 times larger than hummingbirds. My question is what are you doing with all those neurons? Why are you not scoring better than an animal that has a tiny, tiny brain?” The students chuckled. They chuckled at themselves that is.

Why are hummingbirds so smart? According to Professor Hurley, “the answer is that there is intense natural selection of hummingbirds to get this right because if they don’t they die.” Now humans have figured this out. They are pretty smart too.

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