The glowing, intensifying, changing colors of hummingbirds are one brilliant example of their off-the-charts biology. These smallest of warm-blooded animals also have the fastest wingbeats and heartbeat of any bird, and they are the only birds that can fly backward and straight up and down. If there were a bird version of competitive eating, they’d surely nab a prize for being able to consume half their body weight in food every day. And they have the amazing ability to lower their body temperature on a nightly basis to save energy: The Black Metaltail in the Peruvian Andes holds the record for lowest body temperature (38 degrees F) ever recorded in a bird.

With a swivel of his head, a male Anna’s Hummingbird goes from muted to marvelous thanks to the microstructure of his feathers.

But it’s the mind-bending diversity of the hummingbird color palette that really sets the Trochilidae family apart from the rest of the bird world. Among the 360 or so hummingbird species, there is example after example of colors that seem to be plucked out of a prism: the iridescent rainbow of the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, the shimmering purple and green of the Sparkling Violetear, the searing magenta of Anna’s Hummingbird, and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, night-sky violet of the Velvet-purple Coronet.  

As it turns out, hummingbirds are not just a colorful group of birds, they are the most colorful family of birds on Earth. They produce and manipulate an otherworldly spectrum in ways that are unique within the biological world. And that’s captured the imagination of ornithologists across the Western Hemisphere (the only place where hummingbirds live), as a new wave of research is seeking to clarify how hummingbird colors are produced and how they function.

Their colorful discoveries are, in a word, dazzling.

Information Curtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology