Hummingbirds: Nature’s Amazing Aerialists

You can’t miss him when he speeds through the neighborhood.  His green tailored suit and flashy red necktie put my tee shirt and cargo shorts to shame.  He hovers briefly near a pineapple sage bloom, beating his wings fifty-three times per second and giving me his high-pitched laugh (I’d call it a twitter, but that might give you the wrong impression).

He sips at the nectar for a few seconds, before a rival zooms in to challenge him for his flower.  There are dozens of similar flowers nearby, but no other will do.  A tense skirmish ensues, with the tiny fellows ducking and charging, displaying their acrobatic skills but never touching each other.  In the end, both fly away in search of a place where they might dine unhindered.

I always enjoy the company of hummingbirds, even if they don’t feel the same about each other.  So, for this month’s Nature Notes, I decided to look up and post a few facts about these miniature aviators.

The ruby-throated is the most common hummingbird species that breeds in the eastern half of North America.  Males establish a territory in which they court females with their aerial skills and red throats.*  Although aggressive toward bees, butterflies, and other birds, hummers are inquisitive toward people and quickly adjust to human presence.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds have an extremely high metabolism, requiring them to eat as much as twice their body weight in food each day.  They breed in North America, where the female lays two or three eggs in a walnut-sized nest.  The minuscule structure is secured to a tree limb with spider silk, camouflaged by lichens, and lined with dandelion or thistle down.

In early fall, hummingbirds eat even more, doubling their body weight to prepare for migration.  They accomplish one of the most stunning feats in the animal kingdom — a five hundred-mile, nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.  After their journey, the spend the winter in Central America.

Here are some more interesting facts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

  • The extremely short legs of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird prevent it from walking or hopping. The best it can do is shuffle along a perch. Nevertheless, it scratches its head and neck by raising its foot up and over its wing.
  • Scientists place hummingbirds and swifts in the same taxonomic order, the Apodiformes. The name means “without feet,” which is certainly how these birds look most of the time.
  • The Ruby-throated Hummingbird does not show a strong preference for any particular color of feeder. Instead, it prefers specific feeder locations.
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds prefer to feed on red or orange flowers. Like many birds, they have good color vision and can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, which humans can’t see.

We’ve got some really fly activities this month, so be sure to check them out!

*The patch of iridescent color on a hummingbird’s throat is know as a gorget.

[Image credits: Flickr users John Benson (top left) and hart_curt (above center).]

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