Hummingbirds to Fly

A handmade craft / toy for learning about Coevolved Pollination Partnerships

Here’s an enjoyable craft that youngsters can make to help them remember the beautiful partnerships that exist between hummingbirds and certain flowering plants. The resulting paper hummingbird is visually charming and can become a child’s companion on a walk through the school (or home) garden, an ornament for their room, or even a character in an impromptu story or drama invented with friends.

As we all know, life is based upon relationships and interactions. The existence of living creatures is predicated upon favorable relationships with non-living, abiotic phenomena such as sunlight, the atmosphere, soils, water, and climate, etc.   There are also relationships that unfold between living beings (in patterns that we categorize with terms such as: predatory, parasitic, competitive, commensal, or mutualistic).

Well, hummingbirds are glorious examples of living creatures who have evolved a mutualistic relationships with particular flowering plants. Over thousands of years, the mobile hummingbirds have changed and adapted in ways that help immobile plants transfer their pollen from one flower to the next. When this happens there is more genetic recombination and diversity in the seeds that are being produced.  This can enhance the adaptability – and survivability – of the plant, particularly in changing environments.   In return for their efforts, the hummingbirds are rewarded with energy-rich nectar. This helps power the tiny birds’ rapid wingbeats, their metabolism in general, and their frenetic lifestyle. 

Over the course of millennia, these mutualistic partnerships have coevolved in ways that enhance the survival of both the hummingbirds and the plants, and that make their exchanges even more harmonious.  Many of the plants pollinated by hummingbirds have developed nectar-filled, tubular flowers that are especially well-suited for the birds’ long beaks.  They have blossoms with bright colors (often reddish orange) that signal brilliantly to the birds when nectar and pollen are available.  The birds in turn can respond to these cues because they’ve evolved excellent color vision.  Moreover, their wing muscles enable them hover in place as they sip nectar.  Then, they zip off to harvest additional food from other blossoms, and in the process, deliver pollen that’s been dusted on their face and beaks to other blossoms of the same species.     

This is a marvelous partnership to describe to the youngsters, but just in case the words ‘go over their heads,’ please do your best to ensure that they still remember with a smile – the interactions between hummingbirds and flowers.  Provide them with the opportunity to craft their own ‘pet’ hummingbirds. Invite them to bring these along on a walk to the garden or a dash through the park.  If time permits, read some of the delightful folktales about hummingbirds which have been told in many parts of the world. Help the children appreciate and treasure these strange and amazing little beings who form important partnerships with plants; who foster the life of the beautiful columbines and cardinal flowers of our region, other lovely flowers in other ecosystems – and our human sense of wonder.