On a Science Project

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The science process starts with a question. I had a question, but it didn’t involve an experiment. It’s a good question and one that could be answered by direct observation. After all, direct observation is very much part of the science process … and its data is important and reliable.

It’s interesting how some conveniently dismiss direct observation. As a matter of fact, many who dismiss evolution love to imply the lack of experimentation involved in evolution while also dismissing all the data Darwin compiled from direct observation. For those who didn’t know, Darwin’s recorded notes were very detailed.

My question: At our hummingbird feeder, what is the ratio of hummingbirds that perch while they drink/feed to those hovering while the drink/feed?

My controls were simple: We have only one feeder, it didn’t move, and we used the same food source. On the other hand, we admittedly recorded our observations randomly – that is, when looking out the window.

Findings: After observing recording 100 feedings, 75 perched and 25 hovered.

Conclusion: Hummingbirds at our feeder who perched outnumbered those who hovered by a 3:1 ratio. This ratio was established early, thus maintained through the remaining observations.

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Q&A Discussion
Is this is true at all feeders?

Absolutely not because I confidently say that if my feeder didn’t have perches, no hummingbird would perk on it when feeding – thus all would hover.

Do multiple hummingbirds feed at once?

As a general rule, the ruby-throated hummingbird is very territorial as we frequently observed birds keeping others away. Three key points: 1) we didn’t keep any data about this, and 2) this may not be true for other hummingbird species. (See this picture)  3) this behavior does not seem to be very energy-efficient.

How many different hummingbirds were involved in the study?

I didn’t gather this data because I did not identify individuals by traits or tags. Typically, the most hummingbirds saw at one time on and/or around the feeder was 3. However, my wife observed 5 once. I also observed a day of swarming – thus seeing up to 7 hummingbirds at once on and around the feeder. I would predict other nearby feeders were empty on that day.

Does gender and age influence their choice?

Unclear. As an Equal Opportunity Feeder, we did not require hummingbirds to provide birth certificates or proof of residency. Although distinguishing males and females is easy, we didn’t record data based on sex or age. I can say that I don’t recall seeing a male hover to feed. However, I observed females in both feeding positions. Plus, it is possible that only 3 different hummingbirds regularly visited our feeder, thus the youngest was the one hovering because it didn’t know better.

The Next Question
Often, the science process leads to more questions. For me it’s this: Do hummingbirds poop?

Researching What Is Known
Because they have a liquid diet, it would seem their kidneys are very active. Let alone accounting for their high metabolism. Hummingbirds lack a urinary bladder because carrying extra weight from stored urine decreases flight efficiency. Therefore, the ureter provides a passageway for the urine from each kidney to deposit directly into the lower large intestine.

Given that the solution in the feeder is sugar and water, hummingbirds (like the rest of life) also need proteins, fats, and salts – especially the proteins, whose root origins means of first importance. Because the food in our feeder won’t provide those nutrients and we didn’t add protein supplements, hummingbirds must balance their diet by eating small insects, insect eggs, and insect larva – and all those require digestion that will produce wastes to be eliminated.


When hummingbirds perform their version of defecation, they simultaneously release solid and liquid wastes – which means they poop and pee at the same time through the same opening.

98 thoughts on “On a Science Project

  1. Splendid!!!! Ig Nobel anyone?? 😉
    but one thing… did you learn this from your students? When unsure, obfuscate!! 😀 Just kidding..
    Hahaha. For example, you said it is a ratio of 3:1 which implies there were a minimum of 4 hummingbirds at the time. Then you say that you have seen at most three at a time. 😀

    But, on a serious note, yes indeed, observation is what makes science possible. Empirical evidence is often dismissed or we are jeered that it is akin to a process of mathematical induction. But it might surprise them to see how often it is proved right.

    (Off topic/continued from another comment on another post: Sept 5th was Teachers’ Day here. I was invited, as a PTA executive body member, to my daughter’s school. To my surprise they asked me if I could conduct the programmes there. Both the kids and the teachers loved the whole show. And amazingly, afterwards, the senior teachers asked me if I could teach the students on a part-time basis. I stand vindicated, finally. And the science teacher is absolutely thrilled that I am a Carl Sagan fan and share his views about teaching science and maths to the kids. So, what I said the last time about not being accepted by the teachers is no longer true 🙂 They want me to conduct seminars, show the kids documentaries and Carl Sagan’s series, conduct experiments and demos on weekends. I am so chuffed, hahaha)..


  2. The proverbial bad penny, sorry. I just wanted to add something here. Your key point (3) seems a little odd. Why would you think it is energy-inefficient? I do not know much about it, but I am just putting forth a hypothesis here. For example, military aircraft use Air-to-air refueling procedures because landing and take-off is not just time-consuming but also consumes extra energy. Similarly, when a hummingbird lands, I suppose its metabolism drops drastically and its heart rate must slow down considerably. To then take off after feeding, would probably require something like an engine revving up to optimal RPM. I am not sure, just asking you. Would it be sort of like that? Hovering while feeding may not require too much disruption in the internal processes. Or so I would imagine 🙂


  3. That was a good question and data to answer it. Before I got to Next Question, I had more questions. Your poop query was funny. I was watching one of the birds just this week when it pooped. I’d never seen that before. I couldn’t hear the fart part. The window was closed.


      • How many of the counts were by repeat visitors?
        Is there a difference between male and female for the ratio?
        How is the ratio affected by the presence of other birds?
        Does the presence of bees or wasps change the ratio?


        • I can say that the feeder stands alone (in terms of other feeders) so know other birds affected my results … but if we could place this feeder and these birds in a different situation, then would may know. Also, I didn’t record the time factor – that is the number of days I recorded responses.

          As an Equal Opportunity Feeder, we allow repeat visitors … and I’ve go the feeling that not that many different birds visited … but I cannot verify that.


  4. OK Frank. You are well qualified to receive some sort of federal grant.
    Envious – the past couple of years the humming birds have just been migrating on through after a little rest stop at the lantana bush. Our neighbor has a couple of feeders, but they are saying the same thing. Saw a lovely emerald green one yesterday. – Lantana bush – 1. Hummingbird feeder next door – 0. Guess that one was into strictly organics?
    FUN post!


  5. Well, this was certainly a thorough science experiment, Frank. I give you an A+ for knowledge and for entertainment. I need to get a hummingbird feeder now so I can watch all your observations in action.


  6. Is it weird I find it fascinating that hummingbirds’ ureters drain directly into their intestines? Thanks for the very interesting tidbit. As for this: “we did not require hummingbirds to provide birth certificates or proof of residency.”—It made me laugh out loud. You’ve got me learning AND laughing. Well done. 🙂


  7. OK, first of all, the music bed choice for the poop/fart video was magical.

    Second, I always enjoyed accounting for controls or missing data in research when I was involved in that. I still use those skills to this day. And, in interpersonal terms, it allows me to assume the best about someone who is behaving badly (because I can either come up with circumstances that would explain the behavior, or can at least admit that I do not know all of the factors). This doesn’t excuse, but it helps me to create scenarios that allow more grace and leeway.


    • Eric,
      Great point about controls and missing data. As I stated, data direct observation is acceptable, but methodology is still important. As for the video, once I found it, I had to use it.


  8. My parents had three feeders, we would watch them and noticed there were different birds at different feeders, different times of the day. Very territorial little creatures, mean too.

    I learn something new nearly every time I come here Frank, the magical video; loved it.


  9. A few years ago, a hummingbird dropped by in our yard, it tried to land in my hair to be more exact. Anyways, after that experience I decided to go out and buy a hummingbird feeder and hang it where it could be observed while I or anyone washed dishes. For the past three years I religiously put out the feeder in the spring and wait. Nothing. Maybe I need to hang some of strands of my hair because it has been more than once that a hummingbird has tried to land on me?


  10. Frank, you are a wise scientist. Observational studies are not the highest form of scientific studies, but the data that can be produced is important nevertheless, as you demonstrated.

    I can add my own observations to the collective. We used to have a feeder with no perches, and thus the birds had to hover while they ate. Then I (stupidly) replaced it with one with perches, and now they NEVER hover at the feeder, although they do hover around the area.

    I can also say that I have personally experienced the pooping/peeing of a hummingbird. On the day the movers were arriving with all our stuff here at this NoVA house, a hummingbird got into my house. She flew around my familyroom’s vaulted ceiling, pausing on the suspended beams, and on the moldings on the paladian windows, pooping/peeing all the while. I was quite glad there was no furniture. I managed to get Cooper into another room, and I tried to get her out of the room. She flew around for nearly two hours, perching and hovering until she perched on a window frame and collapsed, dropping about 7 feet onto the stone floor. I scooped her up in a towel, and placed her on a secluded bush where I could watch to see if she recovered. She did in a very short while, and then, after resting a bit, flew off.

    Of course, this is an anecdotal case report, the lowest form of study available. Still, It’s my story!


  11. I have to say, I love this post. I don’t know anything about hummingbirds, but I like to know anything I can, if that makes sense. And as a scientist myself, I like observation/experiment/hypothesis, the entire process… it just feels so clean. So not-made up. While I might be tempted to debate the size of your sample set, that would just be picky – it’s the omelette that matters, not how many eggs are in the carton.

    Have you ever seen Master and Commander? it’s a Russell Crowe movie with Paul Bettany. Immensely interesting, and has, at its core, a scientific theme, mostly centred around natural selection. Pretty wonderful movie with amazing music and intense visuals, plus an incredibly moving story and characters.


    • Trent,
      I initially thought about 100 samples … then went with “we’ll see approach”. I noticed the 3:1 ratio relatively early in the data, which then stayed consistent – so once I reached 100, I didn’t think any more was necessary … although more probably would validate 3:1.

      “Clean” is a good descriptor of the science process. Sure mistakes can be made, but that’s where others verifying the data through duplicate the conditions is a wonderful verification tool.

      I see that Master and Commander is on Netflix, so thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Here’s an interesting fact, Frank ~ there are no hummingbirds in Australia (but I guess you knew that, didn’t you?) I feed birds in my garden, so have pondered Australian bird’s habits and mannerisms for a number of years, and as a consequence of watching my local wildlife, have also wondered whether hummingbirds ever stop beating those tiny wings of theirs! In the only photos I have previously seen of them, they are constantly in flight, so it was great to see the photos of Cindy Knoke, who actually shows them sitting at her feeder. I enjoyed reading through your entertaining, interesting and educational findings. 🙂


    • Joanne,
      I did NOT know of Australia’s lack of hummingbirds. Then again, now that I know, it’s not surprising. After all, Australia is a great example of geographic isolationism in the biological world.

      Here in the US, there is only one species of HBs east of the Mississippi River, but many species to the west. Then again, I don’t know how many species exist in the western US.

      The little guys definitely perch … even on a tree limb. Glad you enjoyed this.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I watch the hummingbirds perch all over the yard, but when they are eating, they tend to hover.That’s my extremely unscientific observation! My favorite is when they sit on the spillway of the waterfall and drink. They look so light and yet they can stand up against moving water. Very funny video. I had no idea! 🙂


  14. One would think that their natural feeding position would be hovering because flowers aren’t that likely to have a convenient perch. That would make the perching a learned behavior, which would seem to come with its own reward of both easier feeding and less energy used.


  15. What a fun post. I love that you did a science experiment. I agree that so many people have no idea about science or science experiments.
    I laughed at the sentence about not requiring a birth certificate.
    The video was a great touch. 🙂


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