Whilst Cuba’s stunning cities and pristine beaches are a big draw for tourists, Cuba also has outstanding areas of biodiversity scattered across the island that are well worth a visit. If you are lucky then you might come across the world’s smallest bird. Known as a "bee hummingbird"(or "zunzuncito" in Spanish), they are fascinating creatures that are popular with wildlife photographers and birdwatchers. Here are ten fun facts:
An adult bee hummingbird rarely grows longer than 61 millimetres long
They are known as a "bee" hummingbird as they are scarcely bigger than a bumblebee. The females grow up to 61 millimetres from beak to tail, the males reach just 55 millimetres. The females weigh around 2.6 grams, the males 1.95 grams. They are so small that they can easily be mistaken for an insect. Being so small, they are also considered to have fewer feathers than any other bird on the planet.
Bee hummingbirds beat their wings up to 80 times per second
To say this bird is restless is to put it mildly. In fact, they are able to fly for up to 20 hours without a break. Their fast beating wings allow them to reach speeds of 25-30 miles per hour. They are able to fly up, down, backwards and upside down. It is the sound of the wings that gives the birds their onomatopoeic name in both Spanish and English. Intriguingly, in English the sound is considered a "hum", hence "hummingbird" whereas in Spanish it is considered a "zun", hence "zunzuncito".
Whilst its common for them to beat their wings up to 80 times per second, males bee hummingbirds are known to beat their wings as much as 200 times per second during a courtship display (see fun fact 4).
Bee hummingbirds are thought to have the 2nd fastest heartbeat of animals in the world
Their heartbeat can reach 1260 beats per minute. To put that in perspective, the heartbeat of a house sparrow is around 460 beats per minute, that of a chicken is around 245 beats per minute. Most human beings have a resting heartbeat of 60-100 times per minute. The only animal thought to have a faster heartbeat is the Etruscan shrew, that can be up to 1511 beats per minute.
The bee hummingbird’s heartbeat is paralleled by a very high breathing speed, taking around 250 breaths per minute at rest.
During the mating season the male bee hummingbirds make considerable changes
The mating season runs from March to June, and during this time the male bee hummingbirds’ head, chin, and throat become a bright shade of red as a way to show off to the (less colourful) females. Bee hummingbirds generally live solitary lives, although in mating season the males form small singing groups which a female hummingbird will visit to select a mate.
As well as showing off with their voice and bright colours, the males have other ways to demonstrate their value to an observing female. They each put on aerial displays, including dives in which they flutter their tail feathers. The female chooses the male she finds most impressive.
Copulation lasts for just a few seconds
Contrary to folklore, bee hummingbirds don’t usually copulate in mid-air. When the male and female get very close to each other and fly together this is usually part of the mating ritual, a signal that the female has chosen the male. Copulation usually occurs when the female perches on a branch and the male enters her from behind. After a few seconds, the male flies away, never to be seen again. The males do not participate in selecting the nest location, nor do they help build the nest, nor do they assist with raising the chicks. During the mating season males attempt to mate with numerous females.
Bee hummingbird eggs are roughly the size of coffee beans
The female bee hummingbird lays either one or two tiny eggs in a nest she has made for herself, usually out of bits of cobweb, tree bark, lichen and plant fibres. The nest is smaller than a golf ball, and there she incubates them for 15-18 days. They fledge around 18-38 days after hatching, and go on to reach reproductive maturity at the age of 1. With luck, they can live up to 7 years in the wild.
Bee hummingbirds play an important role in plant reproduction
The bee hummingbird visits as many as 1500 flowers in a day. They feed on nectar (and sometimes insects and spiders), in the process picking up and transferring pollen on their beak and head. Rather than landing on the flower, they feeds on them whilst hovering in the air, and need to refuel every few minutes to fuel the constant flapping of their wings. Up to 15% of their time is spent eating.
Bee hummingbirds have a wide range of predators
As the world’s smallest bird, they are particularly vulnerable as their size means that they are also attacked by species that treat them as they would an insect. Thus, they not only have to watch out for larger birds and mongoose, but also bees, wasps, frogs, fish and even spiders. As with many creatures around the globe, human activity has by far had the biggest impact on their numbers. They are not yet considered an endangered species, but are classified as "near threatened".
It is rare to find bee hummingbirds outside of Cuba
Bee hummingbirds are native to Cuba, and are endemic to all parts of the main island as well as many of the islets and islands that make up the Cuban archipelago. It is most commonly found in the Zapata Swamp and in eastern Cuba, including at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Alejandro de Humboldt National Park. This area is considered to be one of the most important nature reserves in the Caribbean, and is well worth a visit if you are staying in eastern Cuba.
Bee hummingbirds are one of 27 bird species that are considered endemic to Cuba
Cuba is a biodiversity hotspot, and for geographical and historical reasons has bird species that are very unique. They range from colourful woodpeckers to cute finches to red-shouldered blackbirds and everything in between. As well as seeing birds during wildlife trips you might also come across them in peoples houses, as aviaries are very popular in Cuba.