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Hummingbirds ‘Weaponise’ Bills In Quest For Females And Flowers

Hummingbirds are perhaps best known for their frenetic energy and their speedy pursuit of sweet, sweet nectar, but it turns out some hummingbirds are ferocious fighters too.

A recent study by UC Berkeley discovered that the males in some species of hummingbirds in the tropics of South America have evolved stiff "weaponised bills", with serrated edges and "dagger-like tips".

“We understand hummingbirds’ lives as being all about drinking efficiently from flowers, but then suddenly we see these weird morphologies -- stiff bills, hooks and serrated teeth -- that don’t make any sense in terms of nectar collection efficiency,” said Alejandro Rico-Guevara, lead scientist on the project.

A close-up of the male Tooth-billed Hummingbird, showing a hooked tipped bill with backward-facing teeth. Image credit: UC Berkeley

The males use their bills to fight for territory in the crowded, and ultra-competitive world of a tropical rainforest.

A male will pinch and pull other birds from prime patches of flowers, in order to claim those nectar-filled petals for his own.

Love is a battlefield

On other occasions, males, such as the iridescent Sparkling Violetear, use their bills to try to stab the throats of love rivals in ‘fencing duels’, which occur at places called ‘leks’.

“A lek is like a singles bar, a place where many males get together and sing, sing, sing all the time,” Rico-Guevara said.

“The females go to these small spaces in the forest and pick a male to mate with. If you can get a seat at that bar, it is going to give you the opportunity to reproduce. So they don’t fight for access to resources, like in the territorial species, but they actually fight for an opportunity to reproduce.”

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While some males evolved to be better fighters, females of the same species evolved to be better feeders and foragers -- their bills are curved and flexible highly efficient extractors of nectar.

The study is not the first evidence of the fighting prowess of hummingbirds, who despite their size (the smallest species, the Bee Hummingbird weighs just two grams.

The largest species, the Giant Hummingbird weighs less than 25 grams), are known to be some of the most aggressive birds in the animal kingdom.

The Vervain Hummingbird, a native of Jamaica and usually weighing in at a grand total of 2 – 2.5 grams, has been known to attack much larger birds, including mockingbirds, kestrels and even sometimes lizards.