Hummingbird Tongues Are Pumps, Not Straws

Perkins says the discovery disproves the assumption that hummingbird tongues are straws. Birds use capillary action to sip nectar in tight places against gravity, supporting the previous concept.

A years-long field study of wild hummingbirds disproved that idea. Over five years, scientists researched 18 hummingbird species and found that their tongues act like little pumps.

Hummingbird tongues open their flat tips as they reach nectar, researchers found using slow-motion footage. This pumps nectar into a reservoir at the tip of the tongue and squeezes it into the bird.

Lead researcher Alejandro Rico-Guevara says the procedure takes less than a tenth of a second in a release.

Hummingbirds can eat by capillary action, but Perkins argues that the pump-like approach yields more nectar. Researchers say capillary activity alone would yield only a third as much fluid.

Why bother studying hummingbird tongues? Guevara said the research is only beginning. The team adds in the release that they can apply mathematics to calculate hummingbird nectar intake now that they understand the process.  

That will help scientists understand how hummingbirds choose food, forage, and affect their environment.