There are a remarkable 361 species of Hummingbirds in the Trochilidae family. Many hummingbirds are exceptionally small birds measuring just inches in length and weighing just a few grams. The Bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, weighing in just around 1.8 grams! In general, smaller animals tend to live shorter lives, so how long do hummingbirds live?
Hummingbirds live longer lives than many expect, with a generic life expectancy of around 3 to 7 years on average. Even the smallest hummingbird, the Bee hummingbird, lives for around 5 to 7 years.
For comparison, the average life expectancy of most other small birds is around five years to 7 years. So, hummingbirds do have reasonably short lives, but there is not much of a difference between the hummingbird lifespan and the lifespan of other birds.
The longest-lived hummingbird is thought to be a female Broad-tailed Hummingbird that was tagged as an adult in Colorado in 1976 and recaptured in 1987, which made her at least 12 years old. In captivity, hummingbirds are reported to live as long as 14 years.
An average hummingbird’s life is fast and furious - the fact they can live this long is a marvel of biology. Read on to discover more about the lifespan of these beautiful birds.
Bee Hummingbirds (Mellisuga helenae), the smallest hummingbird species, usually live for between 5 and 7 years
Generally speaking, Hummingbirds live for an average of 3 to 7 years, but this does vary, depending on the species.
Ten years would be impressive for any hummingbird in the wild, but it has been achieved by at least three species; the Broad-tailed hummingbird, the Black-chinned hummingbird and the Buff-bellied hummingbird. Other species of hummingbirds are unlikely to live past the age of 5.
When discussing bird lifespans, it's worth noting that life expectancy is usually calculated for adult birds, when in reality, many hummingbirds do not even make it past the nestling stage.
Hummingbird infant or nestling mortality rates are high as their small nests often fail, and sadly, as many as 50% to 80% of baby hummingbirds will die before they fledge. This is not uncommon amongst birds in general - many species experience similar nestling mortality rates.
Here are the life expectancies for various species of hummingbirds:
Broad-tailed hummingbird female (Selasphorus platycercus) feeding on a flower
Hummingbirds in captivity generally live slightly longer than they do in the wild, assuming they’ve been well cared for.
The longest-lived hummingbirds in captivity were two Black-chinned hummingbirds at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, who lived until they were 13 and 14 years old.
There are many anecdotes of captive hummingbirds living for similar periods, so this seems accurate.
Protection from predators is the obvious reason why birds in captivity tend to live longer, though the difference between the lifespan of wild and captive hummingbirds is not as wide as it is with other birds. For example, some wild crows might only live for around 6 to 8 years in the wild, but some captive crows have lived way beyond the age of 30, with one allegedly achieving the ripe old age of 59.
The Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), is the oldest recorded hummingbird that lived in captivity
It wouldn't be fair to say that hummingbirds live short lives. For their size and pace of life, hummingbirds actually live for a very long time.
The life expectancy of an average hummingbird is not so different to that of many thousands of species of birds. Many small Passerine birds only live for around five years, and some, like the Common starling, only live for around 2 to 3 years.
Considering how fast and furious a hummingbird's life is, they actually live long lives, especially in the case of the longest-lived species.
The relatively short lives of hummingbirds can be partly explained by their fast metabolisms. Due to their small size, hummingbirds have an exceptionally high surface area to volume ratio. Since hummingbird hearts are so small compared to their surface area, they require an extreme amount of energy to stay warm.
Their small size also makes flight very strenuous as they must flap their wings many times to create uplift, much like an insect. Hummingbirds can flap their wings some 50 times a second, creating enough lift to travel at a speed of over 50mph in some species.
Anna’s hummingbirds have the highest length-specific velocity of any animal on the planet - they can travel 385 times their body length in just one second. For comparison, a Cheetah can travel just 16 body lengths in one second.
Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) male, in flight
Estimates suggest that an average hummingbird’s daily diet is equivalent to 150,000 human calories, which would be like drinking your own body weight in sugary drinks!
To sustain their incredible metabolism, hummingbird hearts can beat over 1,000 times per minute. Over an average lifespan of 5 years, a hummingbird’s heart will beat some 2,628,000,000 times - roughly 2.5 billion. But many hummingbirds live for much longer than 5 years, meaning their heart might beat over 5 billion times in one lifetime.
Over an average human’s lifespan, our hearts also beat around 2.5 billion times - despite their short lives, a hummingbird’s heart actually beats as many times as a human’s heart, or sometimes even double.
Most hummingbirds will not survive the nestling stage and die as chicks. In fact, as many as 75% of hummingbird nests fail altogether, leading to high nestling mortality rates.
Some species in western Mexico exhibited nest survival rates of just around 26%. Whether or not there were any hatchlings or nestlings inside is perhaps a different matter, but most studies show that the risk of nestling and hatchling mortality is high.
The main causes of hummingbird nest failure and nestling death are adverse weather events and predation.
When the nests fail, young birds have little hope of surviving if they have not fledged. Hummingbirds are intelligent little creatures and have found ways of adapting their nesting behaviours to maximise survival.
For example, one study of Black-chinned hummingbirds found that they often chose to build their nests close to hawks. Doing so increased nestling survivability from a lowly 8% to over 70%. How? Because the hawks provide protection from jays who frequently predate hummingbird nests. Whilst the hummingbirds can fly under the hawk’s radar, other birds cannot.
As adults, hummingbirds may fall victim to predation, hypothermia, starvation and disease. There is a myth that some hummingbirds will die if they stop flying, but this is just that - a myth!
Recently fledged hummingbird spreading its wings
Hummingbirds are small birds and face threats from a wide range of animals. They are exceptionally fast and evasive, though, which is why many are able to maximise their lifespan and live long lives considering how small and seemingly vulnerable they are.
In fact, hummingbirds are not as delicate as they first seem and many are highly vigilant and aggressive when provoked.
Some predators that threaten hummingbirds include:
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) in flight
The longest-lived wild hummingbird on record is a female Broad-tailed hummingbird that scientists tagged in 1976 in Colorado. That same hummingbird was recaptured in the same place in 1987 and identified by its tag. It was at least 12 years and two months old.
The hummingbird wasn’t found again but retains the title of the oldest wild hummingbird. Several other hummingbirds have reached the ages of around 10 and 11.
In captivity, the oldest known hummingbirds might be two Black-chinned hummingbirds kept at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, who lived until they were 13 and 14 years old. There are various anecdotes of pet or captive hummingbirds living for a similar length of time.
A female Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) at a feeder
Typically, hummingbirds will not survive for more than a few hours if they do not eat, unless they are sleeping. Hummingbirds have ravenous appetites and some, like the Bee hummingbird, feed hundreds of times a day.
There are exceptions, however, as many hummingbirds have been observed going without a sugary meal for days at a time when the flowers in their locality are not in bloom. In these situations, hummingbirds resort to other foods such as tiny insects, and may also suck up moisture from mosses and lichens.
While it is true that all species of hummingbirds require a fairly sucrose-heavy diet, they are still omnivores and have more flexible diets than many assume. If a hummingbird goes without food for several hours whilst it is active in the day, it may start to show signs of lethargy.
Hummingbirds are tough and resolute birds and will likely improvise for as long as they need to find their next sugar fix.
Hummingbird at a feeder sipping nectar
Many hummingbirds are strongly migratory and some travel many thousands of miles every single year. This is partly how hummingbirds survive the winter - by migrating to warmer pastures.
The Rufous hummingbird is an extraordinary example, migrating all the way from Alaska to Central America every year - the longest migratory journey of any bird relative to its size.
Another strategy that hummingbirds use to survive winter is entering an energy-conserving state called torpor, which is similar to hibernation. In torpor, the heartbeats of some hummingbirds plummet from some 1,000+ beats per minute to just 50 beats per minute. This enables them to save just as much energy as they need to retain body heat and stay warm.
Hummingbirds will still feed in winter, making as many trips to sucrose-rich plants as they possibly can. Where flowers are not in bloom, hummingbirds are forced to be more flexible with their diets and will turn to arthropods including small flies, larvae, beetles and ants.
Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) perched on a branch
Hummingbirds, despite looking like tiny jewels, are actually as tough as diamonds. The Rufous hummingbird is the northernmost hummingbird and lives as far north as Alaska! Whilst it migrates far south during winter, it still has to endure freezing temperatures. Hummingbirds survive freezing temperatures by entering a hibernation-like state called torpor. This enables them to conserve energy and expend just as much as they need to not freeze to death.
Anna’s hummingbirds usually live for around 6 to 8 years on average. The oldest known Anna's hummingbird was at least 8.5 years old.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds usually live for around 3 to 5 years. The oldest known Ruby-throated hummingbird was around 6 years 11 months old.
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