The family name of the hummingbird, Trochilidae, derives from the Greek word for “wheel,” highly appropriate for a bird that can fly as fast as a car traveling at highway speeds.
The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is found all over the eastern U.S. and southern Canada. During winter it migrates to Mexico and Central America. In spring these birds make the trip over land, but in the fall they cross the Gulf of Mexico, a 500-mile non-stop trip over open water. Within their range, these birds can be found anywhere there are flowers, most often in fields, meadows, forest edges and back yards.
The ruby-throated is one of the smallest hummingbirds, and the only hummingbird species found in the eastern U.S. With a slender body and long pointed wings that sweep back, it weighs under an ounce and has a wingspan of about four inches. The muscles of the hummingbird’s wing have the strength to beat up to 75 strokes per second, so fast that the movement remains invisible to the human eye except through slow-motion photography. The bird’s long needle-like bill is slightly down-curved. You can distinguish the sexes by noting the shape of the tail--the male’s tail is forked while the female’s is rounded. The highly colorful male has jewel-like red throat feathers (called a gorget), an iridescent green back and a gray chest. The female has the same bright green back, but her throat is white, and she also has white spots on her tail. With short legs and small feet, the hummingbird never walks on the ground, using its feet only for perching.
Defense and Adaptations
Its small size makes the ruby-throated hummingbird vulnerable to creatures that usually don’t present a threat to birds. They can become trapped in spider webs, and are also prey to dragonflies, praying mantis and frogs. A bit like the chihuahuas of the avian world, hummingbirds are bold and unafraid of other birds. Because of their ability to maneuver quickly, they can even chase hawks away. They fiercely defend their territories from other hummingbirds.
While bird flight in general seems a miracle of nature, the special flying abilities of the hummingbird boggle the mind. Unlike other birds, they can launch into the air without a run or jump, almost instantly reaching full speed and stopping just as fast. They hover like helicopters and pivot in mid-air. Hummingbirds are the only birds capable of flying backward.
These birds exhibit great curiosity, especially for things colored red, which undoubtedly helps them find food. They also have excellent memories, returning to good feeding places year after year. When sleeping, the tiny hummingbird enters a state of torpor. This slowed-down nighttime metabolism allows it to conserve energy.
Courtship and Nesting
Except for the brief courting period, these birds are loners. By herself, the female builds a tiny cup-shaped nest 10 to 20 feet above ground. You usually don’t become aware of a hummingbird nest in your area until the trees drop their leaves, revealing a tiny nest only 1 to 1-3/4 inches across and 3/4 of an inch deep. When building it, the female chooses bits of leaves, grass, plant fiber or fluff, often fastening it together with spider webbing. Once she completes her nest, she is ready to choose a mate.
Unlike most male birds who engage in singing contests to win their lady loves, the male hummingbird’s courtship display involves a series of death-defying dives that shows off his shining colors. Once they have mated, the two birds go their separate ways.
No bigger than kidney beans, hummingbird eggs are white and smooth, usually laid two at a time. When the babies emerge from the shells, they are only the size of bumblebees. The female feeds them by regurgitating the nectar and insects collected in her crop. Even after the young leave the nest, she continues to bring them food until they become completely independent.
The hummingbird expends a tremendous amount of energy performing its aerobatics. This bird often eats more than half its weight in food every day. Sugar-rich, high-energy-providing nectar is the hummingbird’s food of choice, and its body is built for collecting it. Besides having a long bill perfectly suited for dipping deep into flowers, it has a long tongue, shaped like a tube with a brush at the end of it. Bees and moths can’t access long tube-like flowers, since they require a place to land when they collect nectar. This presents no obstacle to the hummingbird, since it can beat its wings in a figure-eight pattern, staying aloft as long as necessary to feed. Hummingbirds and the flowers they visit exhibit a mutualistic relationship--like bees and many other nectar feeders, hummingbirds play an important role in pollination.
Besides nectar, the ruby-throated hummingbird will also eat insects and spiders, either after spying them on flowers, or by nabbing them in mid-air. In late summer in particular, the ruby-throated hummingbird begins gorging on nectar to build fat reserves to fuel its long journey south.
Hummingbirds of the Western U.S.
The majority of hummingbirds live in Central and South America, but a few migratory species travel north to the U.S. and Canada. Besides the ruby-throated hummingbird, other types of hummingbirds summering in the U.S. include the black-chinned hummingbird of the American Southwest and the rufous hummingbird, common in western states. Other American hummingbirds include the Allen’s hummingbird along the California coast and the broad-tailed hummingbird of the western mountains. Bird watchers in the Southwest may also spy the blue-throated, magnificent, Costa’s, Lucifer, violet crowned and white eared hummingbird. Anna’s hummingbird of California is the only hummingbird to winter in the U.S.
Attracting Hummingbirds to Your Yard
Hummingbirds distinguish colors and can see into the ultra-violet spectrum. To their eyes, the color red serves as a food beacon and indicates that a flower may contain nectar. Interestingly, the color red does not look bright to other nectar-sippers like bees, who instead are attracted to blue flowers.
You can encourage ruby-throated hummingbirds to visit your property by planting some of their favorite nectar flowers, including columbines, lilies, trumpet vine, cardinal flower and monarda, Good annuals to plant in a hummingbird garden include petunias, fuschsia, salvia and nicotiana; for shrubs, try azaleas, flowering quince and weigela. Hummingbirds will collect nectar from all colors of flowers, but red, orange or bright pink blooms will certainly to draw them to your yard.
Many bird watchers like to maintain nectar feeders for these birds. If you put one up, be prepared to maintain it throughout the season, however. To prevent spoilage, the nectar should be changed every three or four days; even more often in very hot weather.
Images courtesy of BirdFiles