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Film Review
Center Stage
A PBS documentary homes in on the avian world’s ballerinas: hummingbirds.


The white-necked Jacobin is one of many hummingbirds featured in Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air, a production of Coneflower Productions and THIRTEEN, in association with WNET.ORG. Hummingbirds represent one of nature’s most interesting paradoxes—they are the tiniest of birds, yet they qualify as some of the toughest and most energetic creatures on the planet. Click on the image above for a video clip from the film.      
Matthew Bradbury © 2010 WNET.ORG.

If you honk for hummers—winged, not wheeled—Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air, a recent addition to PBS’s Nature series, doesn’t disappoint. For 60 minutes hummingbirds hold center stage, flitting around the screen like shiny-feathered ballerinas.

Those aerial acrobatics are what make the smallest of all warm-blooded creatures, and the smallest bird on the planet, unique. Unlike any other avian species, hummingbirds have the ability to hover, fly backward, spin in place, and briefly fly upside down. Flexible shoulders are the key to their maneuverings. By moving their wings in a figure-eight motion, the birds gain lift on either side and achieve aerial stability, enabling them to stay in one place for extended periods of time—a feat shared only by insects.

Since flowers rarely offer a place to perch, hovering is a necessary adaptation for hummers, which feed on nectar—a lot of it. To keep their tiny hearts going at 600 beats per minute (at rest!) hummingbirds might visit more than 1,000 flowers in one day. But it’s not just the bird that benefits from these visits. An estimated 8,000 plant species across America depend on hummingbirds alone for reproduction, and Hummingbirds highlights this co-evolution. Take the aptly named swordbill and its favorite food source, the datura flower. The swordbill’s four-inch beak is longer than its body and attuned to accessing nectar from the long, tubular flower. Like many other flowers and their primary food sources, the two fit each other like a lock and key.

The film, which originally aired this past January, details many other aspects of the hummingbird’s life as well, including its migrations—which can be the longest of any bird relative to its body length. A rufous hummingbird, for instance, can cover up to 3,000 miles on a one way trip from Mexico to Alaska, while a ruby-throat’s migration includes a nonstop, 18-hour flight over the Gulf of Mexico. (Read more about rufous hummingbirds in our March-April issue here.)

Yet despite their seeming tenacity for survival, many of the 350 hummingbird species are threatened or endangered, victims to habitat loss and diminishing food supplies. In response, some locals living in hummingbird territory are banding together to conserve their habitats. A community in the Peruvian highlands, for instance, is building a bird sanctuary and planting 17,000 trees in an effort to protect the rare spatuletail hummingbird and promote ecotourism. The reserve was created for a single species of hummer, but will in turn protect an entire ecosystem.

The film spotlights its subjects as feathery heroes that adapt to environmental challenges and encourage eco-awareness, and it’s the technical camerawork that helps drive home that message. High-speed cameras set to 500 frames per second isolate every movement of the iridescent hummingbirds as they fly at 200 wingbeats per second. Mid-air “dogfights” are slowed down to catch the swooping, diving, and dodging hummers as they defend their nectar-rich patch of flowers, while mating rituals, including a 10G death dive (about the amount of force where fighter pilots black out), are detailed frame by frame. Even if you’re not a hummingbird fanatic, watching these minute creatures dance around the screen is more than just entertaining stylized cinematography: It’s access to a world unseen by the naked eye.  

Visit to purchase Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air for $19.99. The entire film is also available for online viewing online.

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