Hummingbirds are Here! by Jenn Stumer – Appalachian Creations. Inc.
With cooler temperatures lending such a late start to this spring season, it’s been easy to forget about the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Imagine my delight when I saw one hovering over the burgundy pansies in my hanging baskets! I knew there were very little options for food for them so I hung my liquid feeder the same day. Of course the arrival of this Archilochus colubris, prompted me to research more information on them. Which I’m happy to share!
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds begin their migration from the south and arrive around the same time every year regardless of the temperatures in our area. They need the warmth of the sun, and they need food sources as soon as they arrive. This cooler weather prevents them from feeding, and forces them to go into torpor, a state of being still and stiff, in order to conserve energy. If they can’t find food to generate warmth, they might not survive.
Hummers will feed every 15-20 minutes all day long. An adult bird can eat twice their body weight in one day but it burns this up with the high metabolism necessary to sustain its rapid wing beat and aerodynamic maneuvers. Nectar is their primary source of food from which they gain carbohydrates for energy. But they do not suck nectar as you would expect them to (as in drinking through a straw). They place their open bill in the feeder and lick up the nectar at a high rate of speed similar to how a cat drinks. The birds will also catch and eat insects and spiders that will provide them with fats and proteins. They will spend more time eating insects to fatten up as the time draws near for their southern migration.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the most common hummingbird in our area. The adult males migrate north several days before the females and young males in order to claim their territory. The territory is usually rich in nectar-containing flowers and could cover a quarter acre or more. Hummers are extremely protective of their food source and will defend their territory by chasing intruders out of their space. They will descend aggressively upon cats, squirrels, butterflies, moths, bees, larger birds and even humans to defend their territory. Even the female builds her nest away from the male territory.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds like to nest in deciduous or mixed woodland areas often near or over water. The female alone builds the nest usually on a downward facing tree branch anywhere between 4’-50’ off the ground. She will use old flowers and leaves and lichen on the outside. The inside is lined with soft plant down and spider’s silk. The outside diameter is no bigger than a half dollar. Old nests are reused for several seasons and refurbished every year.
Female Hummingbirds provide all the care for the babies. They lay 1-3 eggs, incubating them for about two weeks. Upon hatching, the young are no bigger than peas. They are blind and featherless and virtually helpless, in need of constant care. They are fed by the female as she is hovering. She inserts her bill into the baby’s throat and pumps in nectar and insects. Because brooding periods vary with the weather, a female may have several broods in a season.
Hummingbirds have unique skeletal and flight muscle adaptations that enable them to have high maneuverability in flight. Muscles make up 25-30% of their body weight. Their wings connect to the body only from the shoulder joint. From this joint the wing rotates almost 180 degrees. This allows the bird to move freely in any direction. They can fly not only forward but also straight up and down, sideways and backwards. And of course they can hover in order to drink nectar and eat insects. During hovering, their wings beat an average of 53 beats per second. When moving backwards, 61 beats per second and an astonishing 75 beats per second when moving forward. When they fly, they always follow regular routes. This is called traplining.
Hummers have more feathers per square inch than any other bird and have no down feathers. Many of the feathers are iridescent and require sunlight to show colors. The ruby-throated adult male sports the tell-tale brilliant red throat. The immature males may show some slight coloring in this area but do not fully mature until the following spring.
Hummingbirds are guided by sight. They can see the color red, especially large groups of it, from over half a mile away. But they are not only attracted to red. Orange, pink, purple, white and blue flowers will also draw them.
Hummingbirds share favorite plants with butterflies. Mimosa, butterfly bush, shrub verbena, monarda and hollyhock are a few examples. Cardinal vine, trumpet vine, honeysuckle, rose of Sharon, and Rhododendron are Hummingbird magnets. They are also attracted to artificial feeders. And they love dripping water. They will fly through it instead of perching on a bird bath.
The oldest known Ruby-throated Hummingbird on record is 9 years and 1 month of age. Almost all hummingbirds of 7 years or more in age are females, with males rarely surviving past 5 years of age. Possible reasons for a higher mortality rate in males may be weight loss during the breeding season (it takes a lot of energy to defend its territory), followed by a grueling marathon migration south.
The Ruby-throats are back! And the late start to spring may be hindering them from keeping up with their regular diet. Not much to be done about the cool temperatures but if you have an artificial feeder, fill it and put it out! In researching this article, I learned a good bit about them that I didn’t know before. I hope you enjoy reading it!