Bird Watcher's General Store

Sphinx Moths Can Be Mistaken For Hummingbirds

Dear Bird Folks,

I was working in my garden the other day when I noticed a large bug coming to the flowers. At first I was nervous because I’m petrified of bugs. But after watching it for a few seconds, I realized it was a baby hummingbird. I took out my new iPhone and shot the attached video clip. I don’t really have a question. I just wanted to share my hummingbird video. I hope you like it.

– Kate, Orleans, MA

If your browser can show movies, below is the movie Kate sent us: (it should automatically start playing, click on it to play it agan)

Great video, Katie,

Aren’t iPhones the best? I have one, too, and I can’t stop using it. This thing does it all. It plays all of my bird calls, let’s me know when the Red Sox are playing, and how much they are losing by, and it alerts me when it’s time for my next Jazzercise class. But what I really like about this phone is that AT&T provides the wireless service. That means the “phone” part of the iPhone barely works. I love that. I hate when the phone rings. No one ever calls to tell me that Oprah is giving me a free car. The only calls I ever get are annoying, like when the school calls to tell me that one of my kids has gotten stuck in the locker…again. Or, the doctor’s office calls to say that it’s been ten years and it’s time for another colonoscopy. Who wants to hear that stuff? But I don’t have to worry about any of it with this phone. No matter where I go, there’s never any service, so no one can reach me. It’s the best phone I’ve ever had.

While the phone part of the iPhone may not be perfect, the built-in video camera is excellent. The clip you sent is like watching an episode of Wild Kingdom, only without all the annoying insurance ads. Unfortunately, after viewing your clip, I have to tell you that your original fears were correct. The creature you filmed is not a hummingbird, but rather something you are “petrified” of. Yes, Katie, your baby hummingbird was really a big bug and you were only a few inches away from it. Now, don’t be afraid. You are totally safe. The big bug in your video clip can’t get out of your iPhone…just like calls from your friends can’t get into it.

The big bug that you filmed is actually a large moth, a sphinx moth to be more precise. There are over 1,2000 different species of sphinx moths found throughout the world, with several of them breeding in New England. Sphinx moths are not like those other dopey moths we see smacking into our porch lights night after night. They are strong flyers, capable of speeds approaching thirty MPH. They like to feed on flowers, often eating in bright sunlight. Their behavior is less moth-like and more butterfly-like, or in your case, baby hummingbird-like.

Sphinx moths hover at flowers and drink nectar by using their proboscis. A proboscis is a long tube that curls up when not in use. A moth’s proboscis curls and uncurls like one of those party favors people blow on New Year’s Eve or like a tiny elephant trunk, only without the peanut smell. Plants and flowers are very important to sphinx moths. Not only do they need flowers for the nectar, but plants also serve as hosts for the moth’s eggs and provide food for the caterpillars. Sphinx moth caterpillars are pretty freaky, almost alien-looking. They are often brightly colored, with spots and stripes and have a scary horn sticking out of their back end. The horns are harmless, but they make it nearly impossible for the caterpillars to sit on chairs without ruining the upholstery.

After pausing and studying your video, I’m pretty sure the sphinx moth that was eating from your flowers has the common name of “hummingbird clearwing.” By now I think you understand the “hummingbird” half of that name, but the “clearwing” half is also interesting. When I was a kid, the adults told me that I couldn’t touch a moth or butterfly because if the “powder” (actually scales) came off of their wings, they wouldn’t be able to fly. As it turns out, this is not the case. Some butterflies and moths, called “clearwings,” have very few scales on their wings. In addition, the scales are supposed to come off easily. This helps moths and butterflies escape from predators, especially from spider webs. There you go. There’s yet another example of the lies adults told us kids. I hate adults so much.

While we are on the subject of baby hummingbirds (I have to sneak a little bird info here), it’s important to note that most birds can’t fly until they are basically full-grown. We might see tiny baby bunnies hopping around the yard, but we aren’t likely to see tiny baby cardinals, Blue Jays or hummingbirds flying to our feeders. Here’s the best way, Katie, to tell if the creature hovering at your flowers is a hummingbird moth or just a plain old hummingbird. Sphinx moths have long antennae coming out of their heads; hummingbirds, of course, do not. I don’t know what the moths use their antennae for. Perhaps they get some kind of reception with them. If they do, you can bet it’s better reception than we get with our iPhones.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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