Photo: Kevin M. Gill / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Hummingbirds are specialized nectarivores in the order of Apodiformes. The order name means footless in Latin, and all it takes is a glance to understand why these birds are named this way.
When watching them during flight, all you can see is a plump body and fast-spinning wings – that can rotate as fast as 80 times per second.
Despite their order name, hummingbirds do have feet. However, the exposed part of their hind limbs is so short and delicate that the feet look like tiny spots during flight. When the bird rests, the feet and legs are mostly hidden beneath the plumage. Yet, their toes and opposable thumbs are long enough to grip onto thin branches and wires.
How Many Limbs Do Hummingbirds Have?
Hummingbirds are some of the smallest birds – so small that they are sometimes mistaken for insects like the hummingbird hawk-moth.
While there are many ways to tell the difference between the two, looking at how many limbs they have is often the easiest way.
As birds, hummingbirds have four limbs: two wings and a pair of legs that end up with feet and toes.
The front limbs – or wings – are covered in colorful plumage. Their feet are covered in scaly skin; however, the legs hide under feather pants.
The feathers on their hind limbs often blend in with the rest of the plumage, making it look as if they don’t have legs.
That said, hummingbirds most definitely have both legs and feet.
Hummingbird hawk-moths, on the other hand, don’t have feathers and have three sets of thin legs that don’t end with feet and toes and that aren’t concealed by feathers.
Hummingbird Hind Limb Anatomy
One of the most surprising things about hummingbirds is that, despite the meaning of their order name, they have quite long legs.
To understand how long they are, we should delve into their anatomy.
Like all other birds, hummingbirds have legs that are robust enough to hold their body weight.
During rest, the femur and tibia form an almost 90-degree angle. The tibia is slightly longer than the femur, and together, they are about as long as the bird’s body.
These birds also have a fibula leg bone placed in front of the tibia, both of which connect to the principal metatarsal bone. The fibula and tibia are often fused together.
At the end opposite to the knee, the femur bone forms the hip joint.
As mentioned, a hummingbird’s calf bones form the metatarsal joint with the principal metatarsal bone.
In all birds, this bone consists of fused metatarsal bones, the number of which varies from species to species. Hummingbirds have three front toes, so their principal metatarsal is a fusion of these three.
Much like humans, hummingbirds also have a hallux toe which opposes the three front ones.
This toe is shorter than the other three, but its role is essential. In fact, this toe enables hummingbirds to get a good grip and maintain their balance while perching.
The feet are slender and short compared to the rest of the body, but the toes are long enough to grip onto branches.
However, hummingbirds don’t use their feet and legs for propulsion as they take off before flight, which is likely the reason why they have such small feet.
Can Hummingbirds Walk?
Hummingbirds – surprisingly so – have feet and legs. However, they can’t walk. They can’t even hop in the way sparrows do.
These tiny nectarivores only use their legs for perching.
As mentioned above, hummingbirds don’t push onto their legs when getting off for flight, only using their wings to lift up.
Because of their wing power and movement – these birds rotate their wings instead of flapping them – scientists study the hummingbird wing mechanics to apply it to drones.
Hummingbirds may look footless and even be included in an order called Apodiformes. However, they have feet and long legs designed to support their body weight while perching.
In fact, perching is the only thing hummingbirds use their feet for. These birds can’t walk or hop and don’t use their legs for propulsion. Their true power is in the wings.