Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Penny from a Hummingbird

Guest post by Ernie Allison
A penny for your thoughts?

I was asked this question the other day, and I got to thinking about it. I opened up to the person who offered me that imaginary penny. Why? A penny’s not worth very much. On second thought, should I be offended that my thoughts are worth so little?

Of course, I knew that this was not the intent, but it got me curious about the history of the idiom. It turns out that it’s quite old, dating back to hundreds of years, when a penny could actually buy something. 

The idea behind offering someone a penny for their thoughts is to show them that their thoughts are worth something to you. This makes it more likely that they will open up and share what’s on their mind. This is often used when someone is feeling down or having a problem. The penny-offerer wants to be allowed to help, and show their willingness to do so by offering a (figurative) payment.


This got me looking up other sayings and facts about pennies. Unsurprisingly, a search on “facts about pennies” does not yield very interesting results, but as a birdwatcher, I do know that the weight of hummingbirds is often compared to pennies.

In fact, hummingbirds can weigh anywhere from 2-20 grams. A penny weighs 2.5 grams. So if a hummingbird gave you a penny, would it be worth more?

In weight, yes. And the effort that was given would be more than worth your random thoughts. But is a penny worth anything to a hummingbird? They can’t eat it. It can’t be used as shelter. Currency is worthless. So perhaps a hummingbird would not even think to offer a penny for your thoughts. Maybe they’d offer a flower petal, or a very small bit of nectar. Maybe they’d offer a piece of a nest. 

A hummingbird’s weight is not the only interesting thing about them. Their metabolisms are so fast that they eat up to 3 times their weight each day! Before migration they actually double their weight, which means a large diet increase. By the end of their trip, they’re back below average! This is why it is helpful to hang your feeders now, at the beginning of migration season, just in case some of your humming visitors decide to come early this year. Check out hummingbird migration tracking maps to see if there have been any sightings in your area yet.

In order to get all that nectar, hummingbirds have a pretty interesting tongue. Scientists used to think that hummingbirds used their tongues as straws to suck up nectar. But it turns out that their tongues are forked, the better to lap up nectar with. 

There is a very valuable printing of pennies from 1955 that is double imprinted. This error makes the pennies unique and therefore desirable. You can sell a penny, which isn’t actually worth what it costs to produce, for thousands of dollars because of this. Does the hummingbird’s double-forked tongue make them valuable? The flowers probably think so.

So, here’s where I offer you a penny for your thoughts. What do you find most interesting about hummingbirds, or any animal for that matter?

Ernie Allison loves nature. More specifically, he loves birds and wants to teach others how to appreciate them, too. When he's not sharing his stories with others, he's watching his hummingbird feeder and trying to get decent pictures of the quick critters.

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