Nothing can bring a smile to your face like the sight of a hummingbird zipping through your garden on a beautiful summer day. Of the over 300 species of hummingbirds in the world, only one breeds east of the Mississippi River: the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). It is the one you will most surely see, though western species will occasionally stray into our area. Considering that you will not find hummingbirds in any part of the world but the Western Hemisphere, a single species in our gardens is not such a bad deal.
Identification of this little bird is easy. Emerald green above, with a white belly below, the male has a gorgeous iridescent ruby throat, while the female’s throat is white. (Juveniles of both sexes are similar to the adult female.) Only three-and-a-half inches long and weighing only one tenth of an ounce, it transports itself on rapidly beating wings that allow it to hover at a flower blossom, or to fly in any direction, including backwards. When in flight the Ruby Throat’s wings beat an amazing 75 times per second; when hovering they’re clocked at 55 times per second. Its incredibly thin, long bill can probe deep tubular blossoms, while its ex-tending tongue easily reaches the nectar within. Imagine consuming 50 percent of your body weight each day! The Ruby Throat does so by drinking plenty of plant nectar and tree sap, and eating spiders and insects for protein.
By now the males and females have mated. The male’s job is finished – besides contributing his genes he provides no further assistance. (In fact, males are polygamous and will search out other fe-male to share their genes with.) Meanwhile, the female Ruby Throat will build the nest and raise her young alone. She selects a small branch 10 to 20 feet high in a forest opening or edge, sometimes directly over running water. She collects bud scales to form the minute nest, lining it with plant down. The outside is covered with collected bits of lichen that provide the perfect camouflage. Gazing up from below, the nest can easily be mistaken for a small bulge or knot on the branch. And what holds the hummingbird’s nest together? She carefully pilfered sticky silk from spider webs. When complete, the nest measures no larger than two inches across. Inside this tiny cup are laid two pure white eggs, which hatch into nestlings no larger than peas.
The mother bird feeds her young nectar, as well as small insects and spiders, which are delivered, partially digested, in her crop. She will plunge her long bill down a nestling’s throat and regurgitate this nutritious meal several times an hour.
If hummingbirds visit your garden’s flowers, you may want to add to their food supply by providing sugar water in a hummingbird feeder. Use only cane sugar (no honey, brown sugar, molasses, or red dyes) – one part sugar added to four parts boiling water. Remember to clean the feeder and replace the liquid frequently to prevent the risk of mold that can cause illness in hummingbirds. Or add to your pesticide-free garden landscape with hummingbird-friendly plants. Red tubular flowers like trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, bee balm, and columbines are favorites, but trumpet honeysuckle (not the invasive Japanese honeysuckle), coral bells, jewelweed, and salvias of various colors are also regularly visited. Once ruby throats find your offered banquet, their squeaks, twitters and wing hums will become familiar, and welcomed, sounds in your garden.