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The wonder of ruby-throated hummingbirds

The wonder of ruby-throated hummingbirds

June 6th, 2012 in News
The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most fascinating birds in Missouri. The widespread appeal of these tiny birds lies in their shimmering, iridescent plumage, their darting, hovering flight and their bold, pugnacious behavior.

The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most fascinating birds in Missouri. The widespread appeal of these tiny birds lies in their shimmering, iridescent plumage, their darting, hovering flight and their bold, pugnacious behavior.

To early European settlers in the New World, hummingbirds were especially noteworthy because they occur only in the Western Hemisphere. The majority of the 320 species of hummingbirds live in the Central and South American tropics. About two-dozen species range into the western United States, however only the ruby-throats nest east of the Rocky Mountains although some of the western species occasionally pass through the state during spring and fall migrations.

Description

The ruby-throated hummingbird is by far Missouri's smallest bird. By comparison, the kinglet, the state's next smallest bird, weighs twice as much. The name "ruby-throat" is derived from the adult male's crimson throat feathers, or gorget, which he uses to attract females and for territorial defense. Females and immature males have white throats with gray flecks. All ruby-throated hummingbirds have emerald-green backs, wings and tails and are white below. The iridescence of the plumage causes the birds to appear different shades of color depending on the angle of light.

There are certain large moths that may, at first glance, be confused with hummingbirds.

Hummingbird Facts

Length: 3 inches

Weight: 1/8 ounce

Wing beats: 75 per second

Flight Speed: up to 60 mph

Of Missouri birds, chimney swifts are the closest relatives of hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds can live up to nine years.

Flight

The hummingbird's rapid wing beat enables it to move forward, backward, upward and downward as it hovers in a vertical position and maneuvers from flower to flower to feed on nectar. Hummingbirds can do this because of their strong wing muscles, which are proportionately larger than those of any other bird species. The rapid movement of hummingbird wings makes a low, buzzing sound, which contributes to the bird's name. During aggressive encounters, males emit a higher-pitched, louder hum than females. Ruby-throated hummingbirds also produce rapid squeals and chirps, used especially as threats.

Where to Find Them

In summer, ruby-throated hummingbirds breed throughout approximately the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada. In Missouri, the breeding habitat of ruby-throated hummingbirds is mixed woodlands and deciduous forest. They can also be found in woodland edges, gardens and orchards. They commonly nest along streams and lakeshores; nests are often found on tree branches high over the water. They winter from Mexico to Panama and occasionally the southern tip of Florida.

Spring Migration

Ruby-throats that winter on the east coast of Central America are believed to fly north non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico, a 500-mile journey that can reduce the bird's body weight by half. Many also follow the coastline. They begin arriving on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. in late February. Continuing northward, some ruby-throats arrive in Missouri from mid- to late April but most arrive in May. Males precede females by eight to 10 days, perhaps to establish nesting territories and to identify food sources before the females arrive.

Fall Migration

People see the most ruby-throats in Missouri from August to late September. During this period, the birds tend to linger at feeders as they migrate southward. There are more hummingbirds during this season because the summer's new, young birds have been added to the population.

As the fall weather cools, semiconscious hummingbirds may be found on branches, windowsills or in garages. If they are picked up the warmth of the hand is usually enough to revive them, and they buzz off in perfect health. These birds are exhibiting a behavior akin to hibernation. On cold nights, their body temperature will drop as much as 20 degrees. This is probably an adaptation to conserve energy because of the hummingbirds' high metabolic rate.

Migration Myth

Tales suggesting that hummingbirds hitch a ride on the backs of migrating geese and "buzzards" are groundless--especially considering that they migrate at different times, to different places and that the hummingbird is fully capable of making its own flight.

Courtship

Male and female hummingbirds do not form a pair bond; males and females remain together only for courtship and mating. When a female enters a breeding male's territory, a male ruby-throat will begin a "dive display": a U-shaped looping flight, starting as high as 12 to 15 feet above the female.

Nests, Eggs and Young

The female ruby-throat begins nest building upon arrival at breeding grounds. Females alone select and construct nests, usually 15 to 20 feet above the ground near the tip of a down-sloping branch with a leaf canopy above it.

The nest is about the size of a walnut (1 to 1-3/4 inches across and 1 to 2 inches high). Adorned with lichens, spider webs and plant fluff, it is difficult to tell from a knot on the top of a limb.

The two white eggs, which are no bigger than peanuts, hatch 12 to 14 days after being laid and the young fledge in 18 to 20 days. The female alone performs incubation and rearing.

Feeding Behavior

The hummingbird's rapid wing beat is an adaptation to use the same food sources as bees, butterflies and moths-the carbohydrate-rich nectar of flowers. Rarely alighting on plants, hummingbirds hover in front of flowers and probe their long bills deep into flower centers, exchanging pollen from flower to flower, pollinating plants as they feed on nectar. Ruby-throats also take insects and small spiders, especially when feeding young during the nesting season. Hummingbirds find most insects and spiders in blossoms but they also catch them while flying, a behavior known as "hawking." Hummingbirds that arrive in spring before many flowers are blooming will feed on the tree sap that wells up in holes excavated by yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

Hummingbirds and Trumpet Creeper

At least one plant species in North America is thought to have co-evolved with the hummingbird and depends upon the ruby-throats to pollinate its flowers: trumpet creeper a woodland vine. The hummingbird's long, probe-like bill is especially adept at extracting nectar from the long tubular structure of this common, orange flower. Studies have found that ruby-throats deposit 10 times as much pollen when visiting trumpet creeper flowers as do bumble bees and honey bees. Trumpet creeper plants frequently visited by hummingbirds also set more seeds than do trumpet creeper plants with other pollinators.

Gardening to attract hummingbirds

You can enjoy hummingbird visitors by providing food sources for them in your yard or garden and plants should be an important part of anyone's plan to attract hummingbirds. In addition to providing insects, flowers supply the nutrient-rich nectar that can provide up to 90 percent of a hummingbird's diet. Many of the plants that attract ruby-throated hummingbirds have red or orange tubular flowers.

Missouri's native plants that attract hummers

• Cardinal flower

• Jewelweed or touch-me-not

• Royal catchfly

• Fire pink

• Wild bergamot

• Trumpet creeper

• Native honeysuckles

• Red buckeye (a small tree)

• Columbine

Hummingbird Feeders

One simple way to attract ruby-throats is to build or buy a hummingbird feeder and fill it with a nectar solution and locate the feeder where you can see it from inside the house.

If you have many competing hummingbird "customers," consider placing additional feeders in different parts of your yard.

Buying feeders

When shopping for a feeder, consider those with ant, bee and wasp guards. However, coating the string supporting the feeder with petroleum jelly can also discourage insects, but is a process that may have to be repeated several times per week.

Making "nectar"

A mixture of four parts water to one part sugar-makes good nectar and because most commercial feeders are bright red, adding red food coloring to the nectar is not necessary for attracting the birds. Caution: Never use artificial sweeteners or honey in hummingbird feeders.

When to put out feeders

The best time to put up a hummingbird feeder is in April and the best time to take it down is late September to early October.

Other users of feeders

In addition to ruby-throats your feeder may also be visited by Baltimore orioles, house finches, tanagers and woodpeckers.