Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air – PBS (2010)

Hummingbirds. Today they are strictly found on American continent but there are hummingbird-like fossil specimens from Germany hinting that this group might have been more widespread in its evolutionary past. More than 8000 species of plants have evolved to get their pollination services from hummingbirds. In 2013 a 50 million year old fossil showed the earliest ancestor of hummingbirds. With a heart beating at 600 beats per minute hummingbirds are champions of survival. The PBS documentary explores a rich repertoire of their natural history including evolution, diversity, flight dynamics, feeding preferences, metabolic economy, mating rituals, sound production, nesting habits, breeding, habitat utilization, migration, territoriality and conservation. The documentary masters highspeed filming at its cutting edge to capture the energetic lives of these impressive birds.

Hummingbirds have evolved a variety of bill shapes as a result of food availability a phenomenon that was observed and predicted by Charles Darwin. Most hummingbird-adapted flowers offer no structure to perch on. These flowers can only be utilized by hovering hummingbirds. Example of Datura flowers and sword-billed hummingbird from Ecuadorian rainforests represents an extreme in this kind of mutual relationship. Among all birds this species has the longest bill compared to its body. To avoid toppling over, the sword-billed must hold its bill up high in order to balance everytime it perches. Sexually dimorphic bill shape evolution Heliconia Dominic island.

One of the scientists highlighted in this documentary is Dr. Gregor Yanega. His studies unraveled a quite curious question that has puzzled ornithologists for a long time. Feather production requires a lot of protein. How do hummingbirds get their protein in a seemingly sugar-rich diet? Dr. Yanega’s research demonstrated that hummingbirds have a considerable amount of insects in their diet. His research also showed how they manage to catch by the dynamics of their bill using highspeed filming. This behavior is now well documented and frequently observed in a live feed from the nest of the famous hummingbird Phoebe Allens from Irvine California (which sadly passed away) who has been nesting at about same location since 2007:

The documentary introduces the catch-release-recapture method ecologists use widely to understand population level trends. Using banded birds researchers can track changes in migrational paths and ranges. A quite striking counter-intuitive group behavior is also described such as nesting close to Coopers hawk nests which confer protection from predators. Energetic as they are these birds can literally shut their metabolism down at night by a phenomenon known as torpor during which the heart rate may slow down to 39 beats per minute.

“Magic in the Air” is a well-crafted production compiling almost everything you need to know about hummingbirds as an amateur citizen scientist. The entire production crew deserves a standing ovation. Here’s what the cinematographer Ann Johnson Prum has to say:



  1. Brent Arms says:

    I saw this when it first came out on PBS. It still captivates me and leaves me in AWE of nature and how varied just this one species of bird can be. Appreciating this many variations on a theme should make humans appreciate the many variations on OUR own theme that exist.

  2. wendie says:

    I painted on of your hummingbird photos.
    My email is
    If you’re interested in seeing it.

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