Most areas of the country have some variety of hummingbirds that come up to feeders and put their long needle-like beak into the feeder and draw sugar water. We have all seen articles on how much a hummingbird has to eat to maintain its high metabolic rate. What most of us do not realize is that you cannot live on sugar alone, and hummingbirds have to eat a fair number of insects to get necessary fats and amino acids to survive. How do you catch a bug with a bill that looks like a drinking straw?
Gregor Yanega and Margaret Rubega at the University of Connecticut in Storrs have discovered the answer to this by running special video cameras at 500 frames a second to catch several species of hummingbirds feeding on fruit flies. When the hummingbird goes after a bug, the lower bill drops down and bends at a point near the middle of the bill. This widens the open part of the bill and allows the bird to sweep up the bugs. You can duplicate this by taking a narrow strip of paper and make a V out of it holding the ends in your hands. Slide your fingers toward the center of the V and bend the strip down twisting the paper as you do so. Notice that the exposed part of the paper will have a greater surface area.
The lower jaw of the bird is made of a special bone material that can bend without breaking as most bones would under such conditions. It allows the bird to suck nectar out of your feeder and then fly with its mouth open to catch a bug, giving it balanced nutrition. This incredible design combines material science with fluid dynamics to allow this incredible bird to survive. It has taken decades of study for researchers to understand how the birds do this, and the applications to objects that will benefit man are still in the planning stage. Reference: Natural History, September 2004, pages 22-23.
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