You are wandering through a tropical rainforest. It is late morning and the humidity seems to rise with every step. Life is crawling, buzzing, slithering, climbing, burrowing all around you. Brightly-colored poison dart frogs light up the dark undergrowth like mobile glow-sticks. Fantastic caterpillars, otherworldly insects, ghoulish spiders, tiny scattering creatures. All aspects of nature fascinate you. But you are here for the birds. And there are none. In fact, there have been none for over an hour. The curse of forest birding – a bird drought. You sit down and wait. Maybe the birds will come to you. BZZZUUUZZZZUUUURRR. What was that? Instinctively you cover your face and neck so that you don’t get stung by a giant forest wasp. BZZZUUUZZZZUUUURRR. And then you see it. A hummingbird is hovering a foot from your bright red T-shirt, zigzagging back and forth. Back and forth. You can see from its bill that it is a hermit. A seriously peeved hermit. The giant red tubular flower that is your T-shirt has gotten the better of this blur of fury. Angrily the hermit spins like a tiny attack helicopter and disappears into the darkness.
Hummingbirds are some of the most fascinating creatures known to humankind. They are the only birds able to fly backwards and the 340-odd species come in many different forms. They have unique survival strategies, fantastic colors, crazy bills and endearing personalities. Here is my Top 20 list of the most amazing hummingbirds in the world. Each makes this list because it is literally unbelievable in some aspect of its life whether it be survival, color, shape, size or uniqueness.
Starting off the Top 20 list is a tie for 20th place, with both candidates from the good ole US of A. Sharing the 20th berth is Anna’s Hummingbird. The male reaches speeds of over 60 miles per hour (or nearly 400 body lengths per second!!!) during its courtship display dive. This daredevil feat, along with its ridiculous gorget (as illustrated beautifully by Mike below) ensures its spot in the World’s Top 20.
Its partner is the well-known Ruby-throated Hummingbird, one of the only species of hummingbird that migrates every year. For a bird that is only hours from starving to death at any given time, it is no small feat to traverse the 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico! This gem of a hummingbird does this by doubling its body-weight before each crossing, making it one of the bravest – and hungriest! – hummers on earth.
Anna’s Hummingbird by Mike Bergin
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Joe Schneid
The name says it all. Seen under the right light conditions, the Red-tailed Comet has a spectacular red rump and long golden-red tail. As it streaks across the Andean skies of Bolivia and Argentina with its flashy tail, its not hard to see how this bird got the name “comet”. Coming in at no. 19 is the celestial Red-tailed Comet.
Red-tailed Comet by Nick Athanas
The adult male Snowcap is one of the most unmistakable hummingbirds in the world. Found in Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua, this tiny hummingbird is placed within its own genus microchera. Make sure you watch out for this little stunner if you happen to be in Central America.
Snowcap by Nick Athanas
Holding down the no. 17 spot is the Rainbow-bearded Thornbill. Any hummer with a beard should make this list but this is not just any beard! For this male’s facial whiskers display all the colors of the rainbow to match its bright orange mohawk. These high-flyers from the montane grasslands of Ecuador, Peru and Colombia should not be missed on a trip to these countries.
Rainbow-bearded Thornbill by Nick Athanas
There are a number of hummingbirds with outrageous tails that have made this list. The Swallow-tailed Hummingbird is no exception. One of the largest species of hummingbird with a very unique and un-hummingbird-like tail, it is found in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay where it can actually be remarkably common. It is notorious for its aggressiveness across its range and some birds have been known to attack large mammals and hawks. Fiery personalities are usually accompanied by forked tongues. In this case, the Swallow-tailed Hummingbird lets its forked tail do ALL the talking.
Swallow-tailed Hummingbird by Nick Athanas
Velvet-purple Coronets are amongst the most photogenic of all hummers. With a dazzling display of colorful feathers and contrasting white retrices, these beauties are a photographer’s dream. Found in the foothills of northern Ecuador and Colombia, these stunning hummingbirds hold down the no. 15 spot on account of their unbridled modeling talent.
Velvet-purple Coronet by Luke Seitz
The Plovercrest makes the list not only for its stunning white-flanked blue chest but predominantly for its distinctive crest of long feathers extending from the top of the head. Found in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, this bird is called the “tufted flower kisser” in some of the areas that it is found. This flower-kisser can kiss anonymity goodbye as it slides into slot no. 14.
Plovercrest by Arthur Grosset
There are a few hummingbirds that have truly remarkable bills. The Awlbills and Tooth-billed Hummingbirds are serious contenders for this list and deserve special mention. But, as in the movie Highlander, “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!!”. Ok, no. 3 on this list is also famed for its outrageous beak so let’s stick with “THERE CAN BE ONLY TWO!!!”. And the White-tipped Sicklebill cracks the nod with its totally bizarre eating utensil. Nowhere common, this wonderful hummer is found from Costa Rica to Peru and is a specific pollinator of the heliconia flowers it attends.
The Sparkling Violetear occurs commonly throughout much of northern and western South America. Most of the time it simply appears to be a beautiful green hummingbird. But during its display, the males can extend the ear-tufts and this is when it really turns heads! These, the largest of the violetears, hold down the no. 12 spot on account of their sparkling ear-rings.
Sparkling Violetear by Luke Seitz
One could be forgiven for thinking that Booted Rackettails are fictitious characters from a fairy-tale. Not only do these endearing hummers have some of the craziest tails in the avian world, but they also come complete with cotton-wool balls for feet! Were it not for the fact that these hummingbirds are actually remarkably common at places like Tandayapa Lodge, Ecuador, they would probably be at the top of every birders list. Common or not, these little stunners are not to be missed on a trip to Ecuador, Peru or Colombia.
Booted Racket-tail by Sam Woods
Coming in at no. 10 is the bizarre Bearded Helmetcrest. Found in Colombia and Venezuela and the only member of the genus oxypogon, this freak of nature is not only one of the strangest-looking hummers but it is also one of the most resilient. For the Bearded Helmetcrest spends most of its time above the tree-line in the paramo of the high Andes.
Bearded Helmetcrest by Adam Riley
The names of hummingbirds are arguably the most descriptive for any family of birds. But one name in particular conjures up a particularly strange image…the Black-tailed Trainbearer. A trainbearer is a person who hold the gown of a bride at a wedding procession. But this well-endowed hummer, with one of the longest tail feathers of all the hummingbird species, has to do all the carrying himself.
The Giant Hummingbird is not colorful. In fact it might just be one of the drabbest hummingbird species out there. But what it lacks in color it makes up for in size. This bruiser is the same size as a Northern Cardinal and the largest hummingbird on earth. Found in the Andes from southwest Colombia to Argentina and Chile, the Giant Hummingbird comes in at no.8.
Giant Hummingbird by Arthur Grosset
Not to be outdone by its larger relative at no.8, the insect-sized Bee Hummingbird leaps one spot up due to the fact that this bird is the smallest bird in the world. Found only in Cuba and weighing in at a whopping 1.8 grams, I bet there are many US birders who can’t wait for the travel restrictions to be lifted!
Bee Hummingbird female by Arthur Grosset
The Crimson Topaz and its closely-related cousin the Fiery Topaz hold down the no. 6 spot. These are thought to be the second-largest of the hummingbirds but their appeal is in their plumage. Found throughout the lowland forests of the Amazon, these hummers are even more beautiful than the gem they are named after.
All the coquette species are such remarkable hummingbirds that to single out any particular species would do a serious injustice to the others. These are the punk-rockers of the hummingbird world. And no other hummingbird species can rival the hairstyles of these fire-crackers. According to the dictionary, a coquette is a pretty woman who flirts girlishly, constantly trying to gain the admiration of men. And anyone who has watched coquettes in flight can attest to the suitability of this name. Whether you’re looking at a Rufous-crested, Spangled, Frilled or Black-crested Coquette, you can be sure that the flirting will leave you begging for more.
Rufous-crested Coquette by Carlos Bethancourt
Black-crested Coquette by Nick Athanas
So we’ve featured large hummingbirds, small hummingbirds, hummingbirds with long tails, hummingbirds with extraordinary bills and hummingbirds with amazing colors. But the hummer that comes in at number 4 is arguably the toughest hummingbird in the world. The hardy Ecuadorian Hillstar lives higher than any hummingbird on earth and is frequently found way above the treeline at 17,000 feet. This is one of the harshest environments on the planet with freezing temperatures, rarified air and sparse vegetation. Yet this resilient bird is quite at home here.
Ensifera ensifera comes from the Latin ensis(sword) and ferre (to wield/carry). This sword-wielder is one of the craziest looking birds in the avian world. The Sword-billed Hummingbird is the only bird in the world whose bill is longer than its body. And its tongue (as illustrated below) is even longer! Can you imagine having such a monstrous bill that you have to groom yourself with your feet! In fact these hummers have been known to hold their bills pointing skyward to avoid neck-strain. The Sword-billed Hummingbird, like our number 4 candidate, is a high altitude hummer and can be found in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.
One of my favorite birds is the Red-billed Streamertail, Jamaica’s national bird and the inspiration for the national airline’s logo. The Doctorbird, as it is locally called, comes in two flavors, with the black-billed variety being restricted to the extreme east of the island. Although there are several long-tailed hummingbirds, a mature male streamertail has the longest tail appendages of all. With its scissor-like tail, weird crest and bright iridescent coloration, combined with its endemic status, this island hummingbird is right at the top of every hummingbird lover’s list.
A young male Red-billed Streamertail
And now…the moment we’ve all been waiting for! It goes without saying that I would be bold to try and place any other hummingbird in the number 1 spot. There is simply no other bird that comes close to rivaling the Marvelous Spatuletail as the most phenomenal hummingbird in the world. Found in the Amazonas region of Peru, this spectacular bird is incredibly rare and localized. But its rarity and good looks are superseded by the male’s awe-inspiring display. Nobody captures this better than the BBC documentary, Life…
Marvelous Spatuletail by Rich Hoyer
Well, that’s it for the Top 20! Please comment below on what other hummers you think should be on this list. Visit the Arthur Grosset and Nick Athanas sites for great hummer pics. Watch the following Nikon’s BATV videos for great hummingbird videos:
A life-long birder and native of South Africa, James Currie has many years experience in the birding and wildlife tourism arenas. James has led professional wildlife and birding tours for 15 years and his passion for birding and remote cultures has taken him to far corners of the earth from the Amazon and Australia to Africa and Madagascar. He is also an expert in the field of sustainable development and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in African Languages and a Masters degree in Sustainable Environmental Management. From 2004-2007 James worked as the Managing Director of Africa Foundation, a non-profit organization that directs its efforts towards the uplifting of communities surrounding wildlife areas in Africa. James is currently the host and owner of Nikon's Birding Adventures TV and he resides in West Palm Beach, Florida.
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