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Sphinxes, Not Moons

April 28, 2012 at 11:35 pm

I mentioned Luna moths in my previous post.  But that wasn't right!  I thought perhaps it wasn't quite right, but I couldn't remember the correct name.  Luckily for me, Google knew what I meant when I asked it about "moths that look like hummingbirds."

What I've seen around New Mexico—in my yard, and in the flower gardens at the Santa Fe Opera— is one of these.  They're called hummingbird moths because they really, really look like hummingbirds at first glance.

There are some cool videos online.

If you watch this one closely enough, you can actually see the moth's tongue furling and unfurling as it visits each flower.  It's very evident in this video.  It's so disgusting it's wonderful.   This video is interesting because it demonstates how quiet these moths can be, as distinct from hummingbirds.  The hummers I'm familiar with, anyway, are actually pretty noisy.  They trill when they're zipping to and fro, and (unsurprisingly) hum rather loudly when they're hovering.  But that moth... it's like a stealth hummingbird.

The first time I saw one of these moths (I'm told it was a sphinx moth) I couldn't for the life of me figure out what I was seeing.  It was at dusk, so it was a little hard to see clearly as the light faded.  But it was something about the size of a hummingbird, and it was hovering in the flowers just like the hummingbirds do.  But it was silent... and I could see something that sure looked like a tongue flicking in and out.  I never stopped to think it might have been an insect until I described it to somebody else later. 

"Moth," they said.

"No, no," I said.  "This was about the size of a hummingbird.  I mean, big.  And it hovered."


"No, it hovered like a hummingbird.  And it was about the size of one, too.  But it was quiet.  It was way too cool to be an insect."

"Did it have a tongue?"


"Yeah, moths have those."

"...Shut up."


Andrew April 29, 2012 at 2:33 pm
That is really cool. I haven't noticed one of those in North Cal. I consider myself a Nature buff but insects have never been my forte. These Hummingbird Moths are going to take some research though... sooo very cool. I do a animal visitation class sometimes, which basically is when a person sees an animal and it has some kind of significance or causes an emotional experience people ask, "what does it means?". Most people who do this just go for the mythical meanings or some totem work... but I always want to take it a step further and have 'students' look up the biology. I think there's so much more you can learn by the research that can affect your life and your thought process. Quick fix meanings even if it has significance doesn't do justice to the creature. Just ask my wife about the banana slugs that I am obsessed with, even though they eat her lilies- ha!
Tengland April 29, 2012 at 7:34 pm
Hummingbird moths, yeah, they're really cool. You said luna moth, and I thought, wow!, lucky dog, he saw one of those. They're awesome (to borrow a phrase), with wingspans nearly five inches across. Still, one hummingbird moth is better than a thousand millers.
Ian April 30, 2012 at 10:03 am
They are very very cool indeed! I had no idea such a thing existed -- I'd never even heard of them -- until I was sitting in the yard one evening and happened to catch one in the act. Andrew, it's fantastic that you have your students delve in to the biology! I've never encountered a banana slug, but they do have their fans... Yep, you're right, Terry -- definitely not a luna moth.
Scott Denning May 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm
When I was a kid we had a flower garden that would attract half-a-dozen of these every evening. I'm going to devote part of the side yard to a wildflower garden. You've inspired me to include some dusk-bloomers to attract the dusk-hummers.
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