Story and photos by Joan Herrmann
Wherever I go … every spring, around the first week of May, I can expect a familiar whirring and cracking of wings to make me aware that this territory is being recaptured; and where have you placed our feeders. The male ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) has returned. Ruby throat is our only eastern hummingbird. The other seventeen species of hummingbirds found in North America live west of the Mississippi. The males will arrive in our area a few days before the females arrive. The migratory hummingbirds will have traveled continuously across the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of about five hundred miles. Before embarking on their journey, they double their body weight in fat and live on their body fat as they fly over the water. Migration from Central America across the Gulf Waters will take about twenty hours; But they still have a long, long way to go.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds have a phenomenal metabolic rate that is higher than any other animal. Her heart rate is about one thousand two hundred and sixty beats per minute and her breathing rate is about two hundred and fifty breaths per minute, even at rest. Scientists have found that the hummingbird consumes ten times more oxygen during flight than human “elite athletes”. Their wings can flap 53 times per second while they hover and feed. In addition to flying forward, you can fly backwards and upside down. The male’s air pairing indicator involves flying back and forth like a pendulum in front of the female until it accepts and then they will mate.
Males are polygamous and mate with more than one female. Males take no responsibility for nest building, breeding or caring for the nestlings. The female is the architect who designs the lichen-covered nest, lays two or occasionally three eggs, and perhaps reuses the same nest for a second brood in the same season. The cup-shaped nest is about 2.5 cm wide and deep. She assembles it with plant material and cobwebs, and covers the outside with greenish-gray lichen. The silky cobwebs allow the nest to expand as the nestlings grow in it. She will line the inside of the nest with fluff of dandelion or coltsfoot. The female mostly nests in a mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. The nesting trees of choice are usually six to fifty feet tall, with ten to twenty feet being the average height. She attaches the nest to a small twig or twig that slopes down from the tree and is protected by leafy twigs at the top and has an open area below the nesting site. It takes about seven or eight days for the female to complete her nest.
The eggs she lays are shiny white and about the size of a white bean. It will incubate the eggs for about fourteen to sixteen days. The nestlings are born altrial; which means they are immobile, downless, with their eyes closed and need to be fed. In the first few days, shortly after feeding, the nestlings expel a poop sack after they have eaten. The female removes the poop sack to prevent the nest from becoming contaminated with feces. On about the third day, the nestlings move to the edge of the nest and “splash” their droppings over the side of the nest. The nestlings grow very quickly and have to be fed constantly. The female fetches nectar from flowers; find small insects like aphids and tiny spiders that work non-stop throughout the day to feed their hungry brood. Fortunately, they grow quickly and fledge within 14 to 28 days. When they fledge they are fully feathered and able to fly and find their own food. They will no doubt still beg for food and she will teach them how and what to eat.
Hummingbirds have long and forked tongues. It is actually twice longer than its beak and is lined with a “hair-like fringe” called a lamella. When the hummingbird sticks its tongue into a tubular flower that contains the liquid nectar, the tongue licks up the nectar and pulls it back into its beak. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds live to be around five years old, and the life expectancy of the female is around nine years. Their tiny bodies are between 2.8 inches to 3.5 inches long for the male and 3.1 inches to 4.3 inches for the female. The weight of the male is estimated at 0.12 ounces and that of the female is slightly larger at 0.13 ounces. They are dimorphic, which means that they appear different in color and size. The male is an iridescent deeper green than the female and has a ruby-colored throat (throat spot) that can appear black with certain lighting. His chest is sooty white. The feminine color is iridescent lime green, and she also has a soot-white breast, but no collar. They both have tiny feet and although most of the time they can be seen flying or soaring, they can sit on a branch or on the provided pole of a hummingbird feeder. In winter they shed their worn-out feathers and replace them with new ones. They can often be seen on a twig cleaning their feathers, using their feet as “combs” to scratch their necks or heads.
Some of our native wildflowers preferred by the hummingbirds are Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in spring and both red cardinal (Lobelia cardinalis) and jewel herb / spotted petting zoo (Impatiens capensis) in autumn. Hummingbirds are instrumental in pollinating all three of these flowers because of their long bills and tongues. It becomes a symbiotic relationship for both of them, providing food for one and the continuation of the species for the other.
Other interesting facts are that the males leave for their winter quarters about a month before the females and juveniles. Each species of hummingbird has a unique “buzzing sound” during flight due to the number of wingbeats per species. The ruby-throated hummingbird in flight beats its wings 53 beats per second. Unfortunately, hummingbirds occasionally fall prey to predators such as shimmering hawks and other small birds of prey. Blue jays and crows sometimes eat the nestlings, and house cats are also known to hunt hummingbirds. Fortunately, we always seem to enjoy them. I sincerely thank my dear neighbors and close friends for giving me the opportunity to photograph the hummingbird nest and nestlings that appear with this column. A joy shared is a double joy … Thank you very much.