The beakiest bird

I photographed a specimen of the South American sword-billed hummingbird, Ensifera ensifera, in the bird collection at the Universidad de Los Andes, using a pen for scale. The bird is found throughout the northern Andes, and is the only species in the genus Ensifera.

Most important, it’s the only living bird whose beak (3.5 to 4 inches long) is longer than the rest of its body (ca. 2-3 inches)!

Here’s a skeleton of the bird, showing how disproportionately long the bill is.  Wikipedia reports (and there’s verification in a video below) “since the Sword-billed Hummingbird’s beak is very long, it grooms itself with its feet”.

You’ve certainly guessed that the long bill is an adaptation for feeding.  These birds feed largely on passionflowers (Passiflora), which have long corolla tubes that contain the nectar.  The birds approach these pendant flowers from below, deftly inserting their beak like so [note: as several alert commenters note below, the flower shown is not Passiflora but Brugmansia]:

The paper by Lindberg and Olesen (citation below) strongly suggests that these birds are also important pollinators of Passiflora, since they carry pollen on their beaks from flower to flower.  But the authors also warn that their specialization on one genus of flower, and the increasing habitat fragmentation in the Andes, may put these birds on the verge of extinction.

There are some lovely videos and photos of this bird at The Internet IBC bird collection, including a female supping from a feeder and another female using her feet to groom herself.  Arkive has another grooming video and a marvelous video of feeding from a Passiflora.

Hummingbirds are truly the jewels of the avian world, and display some of the most remarkable adaptations seen in animals.  I am always amazed at seeing how these birds hover, absolutely rock still, while they feed.  No helicopter is as agile.  And how some of these nectar-guzzling species make a 600-mile nonstop journey across the Gulf of Mexico—20 hours of straight flight—is beyond belief.

Here are a few words, and some dramatic videos, about how the PBS film “Hummingbirds” was made (I haven’t seen it).


Lindberg, A. B. and J. M. Olesen. 2001.  The fragility of extreme specialization: Passiflora mixta and its pollinating hummingbird Ensifera ensifera. Journal of Tropical Ecology 17: 323-329.


  1. Woof
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Looks like it’s pining for the fjords…

  2. Posted November 27, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    wonderful video

  3. Susan Robinson
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think this is a passiflora. I think it is a Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet.)

    • Brian
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      You may be correct, but Wikipedia, which we all know is always correct, does say that this birdy is adapted to feed on passiflora mixta. Not sure if that helps?

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      That was my first thought, too, but several web hits do specify Passiflora. I did find a picture here:

      …of an E. ensifera feeding on a similar flower that is open enough to show floral reproductive parts that do look like a passion flower’s. I guess maybe this genus is more diverse in form than I was aware of…

      Also, as the site mentions & pictures, this little guy’s tongue is even longer than its beak!

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        (Revisiting that site, I see that the bird and the flower mentioned are NOT in the same pic…)

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          (Pardon me while I carry on a conversation with myself, here…:D )

          The more pics one finds of these Passiflora spp that really resemble the genus, the less the one pictured above looks like them:

          I wonder if the pic just happened to catch the bird checking out another flower with a long tube, such as the sp Susan suggested?

          • Achrachno
            Posted November 27, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

            You and Susan are correct. The flower in the picture is Brugmansia (looks like B. sanguinea to me)and not any sort of Passiflora.

            I doubt the H. bird feeds only at long-tubed Passiflora species. I’ll bet it’ll visit anything that has food within reach. It may just be one of the few birds that can reach the contents of certain long Passiflora flowers.

            But — I wonder if these are not also visited by hawkmoths and the like.

            • Dominic
              Posted November 29, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

              Do the moths compete for the same flowers but at night, or do they feed on different species?

          • Achrachno
            Posted November 27, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

            This hummingbird visits many fls., according to a quick Google search. For example:

            “Ensifera ensifera is a wide-ranging trap-liner in humid and wet forests, along forest edges and between small patches of trees and shrubs (Fjeldså & Krabbe 1990). The length of its bill ranges from 6–11
            cm and its food plants comprise species from the genera Aetanthus, Bomarea,
            Brugmansia, Datura, Fuchsia, Juanalloa, Mutisia, Passiflora and Salpichroa (Fjeldså &
            Krabbe 1990, F. G. Stiles, pers. comm.). Many of these have long-tubed flowers. ”

            — Lindberg & Olesen, J. Trop. Ecol. (2001)17: 323-329

            • Diane G.
              Posted November 27, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

              Makes sense. The first thing I thought of when I saw the arkive pic was Datura, but that didn’t seem quite right, either. According to Malus, below, I was at least in the right family. 🙂

              I’ve always loved the development of the ‘trap-line’ foraging style as epitomized by these tropical hummers.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      Corrected, thanks! –jac

  4. Brian
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    ensifera ensifera – swordbearer swordbearer

    passiflora – passion flower

    I love how Latin/binomial naming can make such simple or uninspired names seem so highbrow.

    • Achrachno
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

      Like Ajaja ajaja?

      Upupa eops?

      • Achrachno
        Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        Sorry — typo. Upupa epops.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 27, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

          I’ve always loved Upupa epops…such delightful meter…

          A long-ago bio prof of mine, who happened to be an ornithologist, chose this sp to illustrate scientific nomenclature. I remember him describing the binomial as “summing up in two words this one particular package of Upupidae.” (oo-POOP-uh-dee)

      • Achrachno
        Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

        And a spelling error! Ajaia ajaja.

        Had a feeling I should have checked that.

  5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    As a non-biologist you go “but how do they fit these suckers within an egg”, followed after some reflection “damn, how fast does the beak grow/how long do the parents feed the chicks anyway”?

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 27, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      How do the parents feed the chicks was one of my first thoughts, too!

  6. Malus
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, the flower in the cover or Arkive is Brugmansia and not Passiflora. Brugmansia is in the family Solanaceae (tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, etc) in which the corolla tube (the petals, the red tissue in the picture) is usually fused up to the tips. In Passiflora(ceae), the tips of the corolla are free as the pictures in the link posted by Diane G show.
    Beautiful bird!!

  7. Posted November 27, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t there a different species of hummingbird that “cheats” by just poking through the flower and getting at the nectar that way?

  8. Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Same here about the amazement. I just love watching hummingbirds in action. And – presumably because they’re so fast they’re impossible to predate – they’re fearless; they will carry on doing their stuff inches from my face. I love the buzz their wings make. I love walking down the street and hearing their distinctive high-pitched chatter and slamming to a stop to see where the bird is.

  9. Diane G.
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Another interesting item, from the website linked to about the skeleton: in the beak portion of the x-ray one can also see the long tongue (hyoid) bones, and how they wrap around the base of the skull!

  10. Dominic
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    The skull in the skeleton appears to have a much longer beak than the stuffed specimen. Do they continue to grow after the bird becomes an adult?

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