Can Hummingbirds Tell Time?
Scientists Discover That Hummers Are Brainy

Student Starting Page

* 8 paper cups
* Marker, pen, or pencil (2 colors)
* Small treats (e.g., candy or nonedible items)
* Handout: Where's the Nectar?

Overview: Students participate in a simple memory activity by pretending to be hummingbirds in search of nectar. The game loosely simulates the rufous hummingbird study described on the student page.


  • Mark a light dot inside each of 4 paper cups. (Marks should not be visible from the outside.) Those cups will represent "fast-refill" flowers. Use another color to mark the remaining 4 cups. They will be "slow-refill" flowers.
  • Turn the cups upside down on a desk in a random order.
  • Pass out copies of Where's the Nectar? to individuals or small groups.


  1. Explain that after being visited by a hummingbird or other pollinator, some flowers refill with nectar faster than others. Students will have a chance to pretend they're hummingbirds visiting flowers in search of nectar.
  2. Choose a volunteer. Tell the class that the researchers gave hummers in the wild some time to learn which flowers filled up faster than others. Give the volunteer a few seconds to lift each "flower" and note the color dot it has. Explain the significance of each color.
  3. Send the volunteer hummingbird out of the room. Next, put a small treat under the fast-refill cups, but nothing under the slow-refill cups.
  4. Invite the hummingbird to return. Explain that it has only enough energy to visit 4 flowers. It will waste energy if it visits empty flowers. Give the hummer a few seconds to make its selections. Have the class use the Where's the Nectar? handout to record the results. (Photo: J. Alison)
  5. Continue until your hummers have made 10 visits. Use a new volunteer each time. Give hummers a different number of flowers to visit on each attempt. Keep track of which flowers were recently drained; don't put a treat under them. On every few visits, put a treat under some of the slow-refill flowers.

Making Connections

  • As students review their results, ask, What statements can you make about our class hummingbirds? What conclusions could you draw?
  • Read what the scientists discovered about hummers. Then come back to the journaling and discussion questions below.

Journaling and Discussion Questions

  • How was our game similar to the actual research study? How was it different? What made the real hummingbirds' task more difficult than ours?
  • Why do you think this sense of timing is an important adaptation for survival?
  • Could you conclude from the research that rufous hummers can keep track of dozens of different flowers? Why or why not? Could you conclude that rubythroated hummingbirds are just as brainy as rufous ones? Why or why not?
  • Name 2 things you learned about scientists or science research from this activity.