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Hummers: the nectar guzzling kind

Flower gardens, sugar water feeders bring out these tiny aerial acrobats

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A week ago I had the distinct and rare pleasure to just sit down on my front porch for an hour and do absolutely nothing. I even went as far as to leave my writing pad and laptop in the house. All I took with me was my glass of sweet tea.

While relaxing I was treated to an acrobatic show of territorial disputes between as many as six ruby-throated hummingbirds in the period of an hour. I was amazed at their agility and tenaciousness, as well as the violence they incorporated to keep others away from the sugar water we put out in our feeder for them. I decided to do a little research and do a short write up on them for this week’s column. 


The adult Ruby-throated hummingbird grows to 3.5 inches tall. The male and female are a metallic green color (the females are a bit duller) on the upper portion of their body while the bottom is white. The males have an incredible metallic ruby-colored throat, which can become dull or shiny depending on the bird’s mood and the angle at which it is viewed. Immature males do not have this throat patch. Females are duller and possess white-tipped tail feathers. They communicate with sharp tweets and twitters, buzzes and squeaks. When they are angry or defending a territory, they really communicate a lot.
While nesting, two tiny pea-sized white eggs are produced in an equally small nest made of vegetation and spider web fibers that is about the size of a walnut. The eggs hatch in approximately two weeks and then the young only hang around for about three weeks. The first egg laid hatches first as the mother incubates them as soon as she lays them. However, the young bird will not fledge until the other bird (provided it makes it) is ready to fledge too. The mother feeds the young after they fledge for a week and a half or so and then they go on their own while the mother builds her body weight back up.
Hummers have been known to live as long as a decade, but most live three or four years.They beat their wings at approximately 50 beats a minute while their heart goes at a whopping 250 beats a minute while resting and an incredible 1,000 or more while feeding! They can fly over 60 mph but average 35 mph. Ruby throated hummers are the only hummers to breed east of the Mississippi.
The hummers winter in Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean. What is really amazing is that when they cross the Gulf of Mexico they do it in one hop unless they happen upon something to land on. Obviously, some do not make it and fall into the gulf. The flight takes them 18 hours.
They will leave our area any time now, with the males taking off first. The males are also the first to arrive back in our area sometime in late March to early April.
I found that these tiny acrobats love tubular flowers such as trumpets that are red, orange or even violet. Amazingly they are the only bird that can fly backward! Their courtship is quite interesting with the female sitting on a branch observing the male buzzing around and swinging in an arch while dipping in front of her. I suppose if his dance is not impressive, he is not accepted. I am glad humans don’t have to do this. I can’t dance worth a lick and would have been out of luck in my search for a mate.
You can make up a hummingbird solution by mixing four parts water to one part sugar. You do not need the red food coloring. Most feeders are red, which serve to attract the birds. They can find the solution once they get close. However, no evidence exists to show that red food coloring will hurt them. However, real sugar is the only thing that may be used successfully and safely for hummers.
Juvenile hummers will stick around until the first frost. If you have a feeder up, you can and probably should leave it up until at least October to help the young birds out. They will not winter in our area, although some research does suggest that a few have been observed in the Outer Banks into winter.
Enjoy feeding these little acrobats, as they will soon depart our area. They come readily to a feeder within a day or two and will sip with you sitting within a few feet of them. If you have kids, hang a feeder in front of a window. I find that watching hummers is far more entertaining and better for your spirit and mind than television ever will be.

By Mark Fike

 

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