How Do Hummingbirds Use Their Tongues and Beaks?

A casual observation could suggest hummingbirds use their long, thin, delicate beaks as straws. Scientists discovered early in the 19th century that hummingbird tongues fork into two small tubes.  

Capillary action was hypothesized to be how birds consume nectar. A towel draws water using this process. Scientists were wrong for almost a century.

Scientists only recently discovered how hummingbirds drink nectar with their long, narrow tongues. In 2011, curious scientists and high-speed motion photography solved the problem.  

Hummingbirds feed piston-like, according to Margaret Rubega and Alejandro Rico-Guevara. Their tongues lick nectar. The tip's small forks open to collect fluid. As the bill closes, the tongue retracts, allowing the bird to drink nectar.

“Can hummingbirds reach far enough down to get sugar water from half full saucer feeders?” questions Marietta, Georgia Birds & Blooms reader Cindee Darden.

Kenn and Kim Kaufman: Yes. We normally prefer saucer hummingbird feeders. They're easier to clean and bees can't access the sugar water because it's well below the top hole.  

But hummingbirds can easily reach it. lengthy, slender beaks and lengthy tongues that reach far beyond the beak are their traits. This lets them access nectar deep inside long, tubular blooms. They may also reach deep inside feeder saucers.

Beak lengths and forms vary greatly among hummingbirds. Some species developed with their primary nectar-producing blooms.

Several hummingbirds have bills tailored to specific flowers. The evolutionary link between pollinators like hummingbirds and bees and flowers that need pollination continues to reveal fascinating insights.