The ruby-throated hummingbird

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hummingbird
Capable of 50 beats per second, the ruby-throated hummingbird resembles a tiny helicopter as it maneuvers throughout its habitat, flying forward, backward, upward and downward and hovering in place. (Tami Gingrich photo)

It was a strange spring in our area. Local social media platforms were buzzing with the question “Where are all the hummingbirds?” At no time was it more obvious that we are incredibly endeared to these tiny birds than when they weren’t showing up at the carefully prepared feeders we had hanging out in anticipation of their arrival. I had to admit there seemed to be a shortage of them early on, but whether they just had a late arrival or were finding food elsewhere, their numbers seem to have adjusted to reflect a healthy population. I can safely say that my feeders are currently buzzing with activity.

There are 15 species of hummingbirds living in the United States (with occasional vagrant species that show up from time to time), but only one of these occurs east of the Mississippi, the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Because it is the only species in the eastern United States, it occupies the largest breeding range of any “hummer” spending the summer months before migrating south to its wintering grounds in Central America.

Characteristics

The hummingbird gets its name from the sound that is produced by the rapid beating of its wings. Capable of 50 beats per second, the bird resembles a tiny helicopter as it maneuvers throughout its habitat, flying forward, backward, upward and downward and hovering in place. At 3.5 inches in length and weighing less than a nickel, their bodies are covered in metallic green feathers that shimmer in the sunlight. The ruby throat gets its name from the color of the male’s brilliant throat feathers, also known as a gorget. Depending upon how the light strikes, the feathers here can shimmer a brilliant ruby-red or appear flat black. Yet, the male is able to manipulate these feathers for maximum color when attempting to impress a female. Like many bird species, the female lacks this stunning feature, sporting a white throat and breast. Hummingbirds have incredibly short legs which prevent them from hopping or walking, so you will never see one on the ground.

Nest

hummingbird nest
Female hummingbirds construct nests out of spider webs, plant fibers and vivid green lichens to make them both cozy and camouflaged. (Tami Gingrich photo)

The ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest is truly a work of art. Commonly situated on the horizontal branch of a deciduous tree, it resembles half a walnut shell in size and shape and is constructed solely by the female. Perhaps the most important component of the nest is the use of spider webs. Lined with soft plant fibers, the webs help anchor the structure to the branch, hold the fibers together, and most importantly, give the nest the elasticity to expand as the chicks grow. I often glimpse hummingbirds on my front porch, searching the dark corners for webs, which they carefully gather in their beaks. Vivid green lichens adorn the nest’s exterior, giving it the camouflage that will keep it from being noticed easily. While on a forest hike one summer, I came across a freshly fallen hummingbird nest that had become dislodged from a branch after a recent storm. I was able to scrutinize this amazing handiwork up close.

Females lay a clutch of one to three pure white eggs and, if they get an early enough start, may produce a second brood. Males do not share in the parental care of the young.

Perhaps the most endearing attribute of the ruby-throated hummingbird is their job as pollinators. Although tiny insects make up a large part of their diet, for those of us with flower gardens, there is nothing more enchanting than observing these bold little birds up close as they probe the blossoms with their long beaks, extracting nectar with their dexterous tongues. From flower to flower they go, efficiently transporting pollen that clings to their feathers as they feed. They prefer tubular-type flowers which produce the most nectar and are often inaccessible to bees. Hummers also have great color vision and often seek out flowers that are orange or red.

Feeders

feeding hummingbirds
The ideal hummingbird nectar solution is a homemade mixture of four parts water to one part sugar. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Putting out feeders to entice hummingbirds in close for observation is one of the most popular forms of bird feeding in the country, and there are many shapes, sizes and styles of feeders on the market from which to choose. Because it is a well-known fact that hummingbirds favor red flowers, feeders almost always come with a red base below a clear vessel for holding a sugar water solution. It is here where I get on my soapbox.

When preparing your solution, use a 4:1 ratio of water to sugar. In other words, 4 cups of water to 1 cup of pure cane sugar. I bring my water to a boil and mix it with the sugar, making sure that all the crystals are dissolved before popping it in the refrigerator to cool for a few hours. Expensive boxes of instant nectar that can be purchased from store shelves are highly, HIGHLY discouraged, as they contain unnecessary red dyes for coloring the solution. If you think about it, nectar is clear, so why wouldn’t you want to keep your solution the same? There is absolutely NO NEED to dye your mixture, none. The plastic red base of your feeder is the only color needed to catch a hummer’s eye.

Still on my soapbox, I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep your solution fresh and to change it before it becomes cloudy or discolored. In the heat of summer, a nectar solution may only last a few days before it begins to spoil, fermenting rapidly and producing a toxic alcohol that will spell the end for any hummingbirds consuming it. During spells of high heat, I mix my solution but only put a quarter of it into my feeder at a time, knowing that it will most likely need to be changed before it is consumed.

Also, I only buy feeders with glass vessels, as they are able to be cleaned more thoroughly than plastic.

With those tips in mind, I hope you will engage in enjoying your tiny hummingbirds and providing them with a quick meal when they need it. Listen for their chattery little voices as they zoom around your yard in an attempt to keep other individuals from using “their” feeders.

Happily, the American Bird Conservancy reports that the population trend of this species is increasing with an estimated 34 million birds in the U.S. and Canada. This upward trend is likely due to the bird’s ability to acclimate itself to human development and urbanization. Honestly, I can’t think of a more enchanting form of watchable wildlife than that of the ruby-throated hummingbird, and if we treat it right, it will be happy to return the favor.

feeder
Because it is a well-known fact that hummingbirds favor red flowers, feeders almost always come with a red base below a clear vessel for holding a sugar water solution. (Tami gingrich photo)

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