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Hummingbirds are graceful flyers, however they are not known for their walking attributes. Through the evolutionary process, every species has their strengths that outweigh their weaknesses. For hummingbirds, their characteristic advantages are the strength and control of their wings in flight and hovering capabilities.
Can hummingbirds walk?
Hummingbirds cannot walk, but they can use their feet to perch, scratch, fight and construct a nest. Possessing short legs, disproportionate feet compared to the rest of their body and having no knees make them unable to walk. This allows them instead to simply perch or shuffle sideways on a twig.
Hummingbirds are mesmerizing petite creatures. They are one of the few birds that cannot evade a predator by running away. They are 100% dependent on their phenomenal aerodynamic abilities.
Let’s investigate why hummingbirds can not walk!
Feet Anatomy of a Hummingbird
The anatomy of a hummingbird’s foot consists of four toes in total; three toes in the front and one toe in the back. This back toe is called the “hallux”. This digit configuration is commonly found with birds who regularly perch. The hallux, which acts similarly to a human’s thumb is present for grip and balance. This feature aids the hummingbird to comfortably perch on a wire or tree branch and is not used for walking. Their legs are exceptionally short and their dainty feet are neatly tucked under their body when they are flying.
A common myth is that hummingbirds can not walk because their legs are too weak to support their body weight. The real obstacle is that the proportion of the hummingbird’s legs and feet do not allow them to engage in “walking.”
Despite the fact that hummingbirds are a part of the bird order known as “Apodiformes,” which in Latin means “footless,” hummingbirds do have feet. Hummingbird feet are small. Evolution has made these birds efficient flyers.
The real reason hummingbirds cannot walk is because their leg to foot length ratio is asymmetric. Hummingbirds are not the supermodels or basketball players of the bird world – they just do not have the legs for it. In fact, legs just might be the least interesting characteristic of a hummingbird.
While hummingbirds are sometimes mistaken as to not having feet because of their very misleading designation in the bird order, they are missing something else that is essential for walking….knees! Hummingbirds are knee-less. Have you ever tried walking without bending your knees? It’s no easy task.
And there you have it. No knees, short legs and disproportionate feet, means no walking for our hummingbird friends.
Read my article on 13 Common Hummingbird Myths You Need To Ignore
For What do Hummingbirds Use Their Legs and Feet?
Since hummingbirds do not walk they use their feet and legs for practical measures like perching, scratching behind the ears, fighting for their territory and making a nest.
Hummingbirds love to perch and they do it often. Some will find a perch as frequently as every ten minutes. There is no doubt hummingbird’s wings are very busy. They flap their wings almost 70 times per second.
A tip of a branch is usually the most common perch for a hummingbird. There are fewer leaves and distractions that block their sight. Do not think hummingbirds are being lazy when they are taking a break to perch.
Hummingbirds are always on the lookout, especially male hummingbirds. Because they are so little, hummingbirds are extremely mindful of predators. When they perch, they like to pick a spot with an uninterrupted view so they can keep an eye on predators.
Since they do not have the leisure of casually strolling around on their own two feet, hummingbirds have managed to develop the most adorable side to side shuffle.
Here is a video of a hummingbird having two available nectar sources, one on either side of his swing while he does a side to side shuffle.
An option for an ambitious hummingbird enthusiast as an extracurricular activity is to purchase or construct a hummingbird swing. Place this swing at a comfortable height for hummingbirds to perch or rest. The other option would be to allow the hummingbird to find their own twigs and branches as perches which they have been doing for many years.
My backyard is full of bushes, trees and flowering plants with a multitude of perching options. Even with all of the above options, to my surprise, I experienced seeing hummingbirds prefer to perch on tomato cages.
In the process of increasing the supply of flowers in my garden, I filled multiple pots with soil and planted Cigar plants. While searching for a place with some elevation to strategically hang my hummingbird feeder, I inadvertently placed a tomato cage in the pot containing the Cigar plant. This created a beautiful display of flowers, that encompassed around the tomato cage creating an enticing stage of color, flowers, food, protection and perching sites.
I noticed that the hummingbirds were attracted to sitting on the top rung of the tomato cage. This allowed them to stand guard ready to signal to any opponent that the territory was taken while it provided an excellent look out location. The wire on the cage is a perfect circumference for a hummingbird to easily grip with its three tiny digits and one hallux.
After my discovery, I experimented by adding another tomato cage by a different feeding station. The male hummingbirds went crazy and loved feeling protected by the flowering plants along with the benefits of being closer to defending their food source.
For further ideas on finding the best flowering plants for hummingbirds check out my post on: Increase Backyard Hummingbird Activity in 7 Days or Less
Scratching is not nearly as fun and exciting as perching, but is extremely important to maintain personal hygiene for a hummingbird. If they are infected with mites, they will become bald on the head if they don’t have the ability to scratch them off. Once the mites are removed, feathers will grow back in 3 weeks.
Since the hummingbird’s legs are short with no knee joint, they have difficulty reaching the top of their head. Therefore, the hummingbird utilizes an interesting maneuver of dropping their wing forward, bringing their leg back and over their wing shortening the distance the foot needs to reach to provide access to their neck, head and beak while preening. All of this takes place while the opposite leg balances the hummingbird on a wind buffeting tiny twig.
Once the scratching is complete they will reverse the movements and tuck their leg back under their wing and continue to securely grip the branch or landing perch with both feet. They repeat this motion multiple times throughout the day.
Check out this short video of a hummingbird scratching.
Most of the time when flying, a hummingbird’s feet are either dangling below them or neatly tucked underneath their body. Hummingbirds become aggressive and territorial when defending their nectar or food source. They will use their feet and beak to fight. Their long and pointy beak is the most obvious weapon, however they also use their feet when defending their territory or warding off a competitor.
Since hummingbirds are professional agile aeronautic aviators, a slow motion video is needed to capture and document the behavior of hummingbirds fighting. A typical scenario is when hummingbird #1 flies up behind hummingbird #2 who is comfortably and quietly perched on a feeder. Hummingbird #1 uses both of his feet, claws open and grabs the neck of hummingbird #2 forcing him down off of the feeder. If this maneuver does not provide the desired effect, the aggressor may use his beak as a weapon to push hummingbird #2 to get the solicited results and to emphasize his strength and dominance.
This action happens so quickly in real life that it looks like nothing more than a friendly push. When the action is seen in slow motion, it is possible to break down the movements and see exactly the grabbing of the opponent’s neck quickly dominating the situation and putting the perpetrator in control. This can be equated to a similar tactic used by a mother cat controlling her babies by grabbing them by the neck.
When hummingbirds have a feud in mid air they will use their feet as a barrier or to grab the opponent while fighting. They will expand and contract their tail feathers to make themselves appear larger to their rival and use their sharp bill to attack.
Shaping a Nest
Female hummingbirds not only use their feet to fight off predators, they also compress and configure their nest to fit two coffee bean sized eggs.
A mother hummingbird’s nest is a delicate beautiful architectural masterpiece as well as being a strong and durable environment to raise her young. While preparing her nest she gathers and assembles nesting materials using grasses, animal fur, cotton fiber, plant material, and small twigs to create a strong foundation.
She will make multiple venturing trips to locate and gather nesting material. When she returns, with the items perfect for building her nest in her beak, she will scan her surroundings to make sure there are no predators before placing her supply strategically on a specific location and meticulously stamp it in place with her feet.
The female will build her nest piece by piece, layering her nesting material with spider web silk which is the glue that binds the nest together. In between stages she will use her feet in an up and down “hammer” motion to shape and mold her nest. She may look like she is dancing, but she is working hard compacting the foundation and base of her nest.
As a finishing touch she will gather more spider web silk. Using her beak,she will rub the outside of her nest to seal and increase its durability. The nest itself may take five to seven days to build.
A hummingbird’s strength is not walking. They have plenty of other ways to use their feet and legs which includes such activities as perching, scratching, fighting and shaping a nest. For what they lack in walking, they make up in their strength, stamina in their wing muscles and flying capabilities. They have proven to be able to evolve and adapt to climate change since hummingbirds have survived through many centuries from being considered the original pteranodon to the present petite hummingbird. Throughout this process, they have continued to contribute to our evolving environment by being prolific pollinators.
Happy Hummingbird Watching!
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