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July 25, 2018     The Monroe County Reporter
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P l orter July 2!, 2018 PLAY HARD HAVE FUN ENJOY THE GAME MONROE OUTDOORS by Terry W. Johnson he humming- bird cannot live without nectar. This sugary fluid makes up 90 percent of its diet. This tiny bird gathers it from either nectar-bearing flowers or hum- mingbird feed- ers. A humming- bird collects this life-giving fluid using its long, seemingly simple tongue. For many years, scientists TERRY W. believed the hummingbird used its tongue to feed on nectar much in the same way we drink soft drinks through a straw. However, this theory was discarded after it was found that there are no tubes in a humming- bird's tongue. There had to be another explanation. It wasn't long before an- other explanation emerged. Since a long channel runs down the center of the top of the hummingbird's tongue it was popularly believed that nectar flowed through this groove from the tip of the bird's bill into its body by the well-known process of capillary action. Plants use capillary ac- tion to move nutrients and water from place to place. -ds explanation had been accepted by the scientific world for decades. As such, I have mentioned it during hummingbird programs I have been giving for three decades. However, recent research has demonstrated that, while it is undoubtedly true some nectar does pass up a hummer's tongue into its body, this ineffi- cient process ac- counts for only about a third of food needed by a hummingbird to survive. Clearly, JOHNSON the humming- bird also utilizes some other mechanism to ingest nectar. The question remained, "What is it?" Recent research has apparently answered this perplexing question. 'In order to understand what is actually happening, you have to know some- thing about the structure of the bird's tongue. As it turns out, it is far more complex than we thought. The hummingbird has a very long tongue. In fact, it can be extended out as far as its bill is long. This permits a hummer to reach nectar pooled up in the far end of the longest tubular- shaped flowers. A groove runs down the center of this unique organ. Another channel runs down the outside edge of the tongue. However, roughly half way down the tongue it actually separates into two halves. The tip of the tongue is forked like the tongue of a snake. Each of these. tips is flat. The tips of the tongue are also sur- rounded by extremely small hair like structures. However, unlike our hair, which is round, they can be described as membra- nous flaps; when a hum- mingbird is not nectar- ing, these feathery flaps envelop the flat (upper) side of the tongue. While biologists long suspected they played a role in col- lecting nectar, proof was lacking. The mystery surround- ing their use was finally solved when a team of scientists conducted a five-year study involv- ing 18 species of hum- mingbirds. The key to unlocking the secret was being able to photograph hummingbirds collecting nectar using the slow- motion video cameras. The birds were photographed feeding at specially de- signed transparent artificial flowers. The researchers discov- ered that when a hum- mingbird dips its bill into nectar it licks the nectar at a rate of 13 licks per sec- ond. This causes the hair- like folds on each of the tongue's two tips to form tubes. The licking motion creates what amounts to a pumping action, which Hummingbirds, like this female rubythroat, have unique features that help these small birds survive, like tongues made to effecientlly deliver nectar to their bodies. (Photo/Terry Johnson) siphons nectar away from juices oozing from punc- the flower up the tongue ture wounds made in ber- and into the humming- ries and fruits by orchard bird. This process takes orioles and birds. only about 1/10th of a It was once mistakenly second. Who would have thought that the hum- ever thought so much mingbird employs its is involved every time a forked tongue to also hummingbird feeds? capture small spiders and As you might expect insects like mosquitoes this same process is used and fruit flies. However, when a hummingbird these feather like flaps are dines on sap that wells up thought to aid the birds in in holes excavated in trees harvesting extremely small by yellow-bellied sapsuck- insects that are often found ers, and on those rare in a flower's nectar. occasions when it feeds on Yet another theory purporting that the sticky surface of the bird's tongue allowed it to cap- ture small prey was also debunked. As far as we know, like most other birds, the hummingbird has a poor sense of taste. The hummer has only about 40-60 taste buds, some of which are located on the underside of its tongue. In comparison, humans are blessed with some 60,000 taste buds. The bird can appar- ently identify fluids with varying concentrations of sugar. The nectar produced by most wild- flowers has roughly a 20 percent sugar content. When given a choice, the hummingbird seems to prefer nectar with higher concentrations of sugar and shuns fluids with less than one part sugar to eight parts water. As we learn more about the hummingbird's tongue, it is obvious that it is one of the many amazing features possessed by what we already knew is a truly amazing bird. Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endan- gered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column 'Monroe Outdoors' for the Reporter for many years. Email him at tjwood- duck@bellsouth.net. F 'hr FOR ONLY S100 INITIATION FEE. Plus, Golf Members get a free pair of Foot Joy Tour S Shoes or a one month dues allowance.* Lifestyle and Social Members can also enjoy 50% off your Initiation Fee; Changing The Way America Learns a II ial IC I esl r services in I in m I la i rln i rvl l :in in ces.