The beakiest bird

November 27, 2010 • 10:24 am

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.

27 thoughts on “The beakiest bird

    1. 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!

          1. 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.

          2. 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

          3. 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.

  1. ensifera ensifera – swordbearer swordbearer

    passiflora – passion flower

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

        1. 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)

  2. 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”?

  3. 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!!

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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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