Steadily lengthening days have cast a blush of color to several trees and shrubs in the Piedmont. Certain maples are tinged red, and if you look closely, you’ll see that this hue results from thousands of clusters of tiny flowers just now blooming.
And if there are flowers, there are insects visiting those flowers for sustenance — insects that hatched from eggs that survived winter. And where there are insects, there are birds arriving just in time to reap the harvest of all these flowers and insects. These birds carry with them innate knowledge that has been with them for thousands of years — knowledge that if they fly hundreds of miles north, they will find an abundance of insects, insect larvae, pollen and nectar. It’s the nutrition that will power them through weeks and months of courtship rituals, territorial defense, predator avoidance, nest-building, incubation and rearing of young.
Among these long-distance travelers are the hummingbirds, the smallest of birds. Found only in the Americas, most of the 338 species are found in the South American equatorial belt. But the range of a few extends into the U.S.
Some, such as the Lucifer, blue-throated and violet-crowned hummingbirds, barely reach the Southwestern border separating Mexico from Arizona and New Mexico. A few more, such as Anna’s, Costa’s and Allen’s hummingbirds will spend the breeding season along the west coast as far north as California.
The ruby-throated is the only hummingbird that nests in the eastern U.S. They spend winter months along Mexico’s Pacific coast and the interior from Oaxaca south through the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America. In springtime, most of them head for eastern North America, and that destination poses a big question for them: whether to go over or around that vast body of water known as the Gulf of Mexico. We don’t know what percentage of the migrating population chooses to go over the Gulf, but many of them do, and that’s a nonstop flight of 500 miles.
The average weight of a ruby-throat is one tenth of an ounce — or less than a nickel. But the migration of hundreds of miles burns a lot of fuel in the form of fat that these little birds put on in preparation for the journey. Hummingbirds will increase their weight by 30% to 90% before migration. By the time they reach their destination, all that fat and then some will have burned off.
Almost immediately upon arrival, the little birds will find mates. The male ruby-throat puts on an elaborate display to convince the female that he’s right for her. While she sits watching, he’ll fly upward as much as 3 feet above her, then swoop down and back up in an exaggerated U-shape flight. After getting her attention with that display, he’ll hover close in front of her and zoom back and forth in an arc, all the while flashing his sparkling iridescent gorget, the namesake ruby-throat.
The humming that gives hummingbirds their name, is generated not vocally, but by their wings which beat at an astonishing 50 times per second.
A few years ago, I was puzzled by a female ruby-throat hovering in mid-air, opening and closing her long bill for no apparent reason. Just then, light reflected off a strand of spider web directly in front her. She was collecting bits of the web to apply to her nest, a material that would cement minuscule fragments of plants together — the most delicate of nest materials, such as dandelion and thistle down. The sticky web would help strengthen the nest and enable it to hold together for the two weeks the eggs — almost invariably two of them — were to be incubated and the three weeks between the hatching of the chicks and their departure from the nest.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds will be returning to our area any day now, and the best way to attract them to your yard is to plant native plants that hummingbirds visit for nectar — plants such as beebalm, cardinal flower and coral honeysuckle. These flowers will enhance the beauty of your landscape and they’re great for hummingbirds.
But while you’re waiting for those plants to bloom, put a feeder in action. For endless hours of entertainment, fill a feeder with a mixture of sugar water at a one to four ratio, or a quarter cup of sugar to a cup of water. Bring it to a boil until the sugar is dissolved. It’s not necessary to add red coloration to the sugar water. Neither is it necessary to add nutrition to the water. The birds will continue to meet their nutritional needs from natural foods such as tiny insects and spiders.
If you have a birding question or story idea, write to Bird’s-Eye View in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please type “birds” in the subject line.