Hummingbirds are some of the most vibrant and aerobatic creatures witnessed here in the Adirondacks. They are known as hummingbirds because of the humming sound created by their beating wings, which flap at high frequencies audible to humans. They hover in mid-air at wing-flapping rates that vary from around 12 beats per second to an excess of 80 beats per second, the smaller the species the faster the wing flapping.
There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds found exclusively in the Americas from Alaska to Chile and are classified as the smallest bird species. With most of this species measuring 3–5 inches in length and weighing about the same as a penny or .09 oz. The runt of these species is the bee hummingbird that is approximately 2 inches long and weighs less than .07 oz.
They may be the tiniest birds on the planet, but hummingbirds are the biggest eaters. In fact, no animal has a faster metabolism than these guys at roughly 100 times that of an elephant. Hummingbirds burn food so fast they often eat 1-1/2 to 3 times their weight in nectar and insects per day. This may explain why people rarely see them when they aren’t eating. In order to gather enough nectar, hummingbirds must visit hundreds of flowers every day. Their sheer need for nectar due to its nutritional value rates them along with bees, butterflies and bats as some the greatest pollinators.
What flowers are they after for nectar and thus pollinating? Brightly-colored flowers that are tubular hold the most nectar, and are particularly attractive to hummingbirds. These include perennials such as bee balms, columbines, daylilies, and lupines; biennials such as foxgloves and hollyhocks; and many annuals, including cleomes, impatiens, and petunias. Hummingbirds have long beaks and even longer tongues, which allows them to feed at flowers that are too long and thin for anything else. When a hummingbird inserts its beak into a flower to drink the nectar, sticky pollen grains cling to the side of its beak. When the hummingbird visits its next flower, some of the pollen grains are transferred, and if both flowers are the same species, pollination occurs.
The greatest peril of the Hummingbird is the lack of habitat and resources to feed their never-ending appetite. One day of cold temperatures or bad luck finding flowers can mean death. What happens to hummingbirds then? These tiny birds have devised a fascinating way to conserve energy when they have bad luck finding food or when the weather is too cold or too rainy for feeding. They go into a sleep-like state known as torpor. During torpor, the tiny bird’s body temperature can drop almost 50 degrees. The heart rate may slow from 500 beats per minute to fewer than 50, and breathing may stop briefly.
A hummingbird consumes as much as 50 times more energy when awake than when in torpor. If you were to find a hummingbird in torpor, it would appear lifeless. While torpor has benefits, there are risks as it can take as long as an hour for the bird to come back into an active state. They rise from torpor as their heart and breathing rates rise and they start vibrating their wings. The use of any body muscles produces heat; that’s why you get warm while exercising. The heat generated by the vibrating wings warms the blood supply and circulates throughout the tiny bird’s body. AS soon their body temperature is back up to its normal toasty 102.2 degrees they are on the hunt for food.
Hummingbirds do not live on sugar water and nectar alone. They eat insects and tiny spiders to supply protein and also feed on tree sap. I assume that supplying fresh spiders for the native hummingbird population might not exactly be your idea of a good time so most of us will opt to provide supplemental nutrition through a sugar solution that we hang out in brightly colored feeders.
Here are some tips for feeding your tiny humming visitors.
RECIPE FOR THE BEST HUMMINGBIRD NECTAR
1 cup of white cane sugar
3 or 4 cups of spring water
Dissolve the sugar in the water. No red food coloring! Unused mixture can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.
- Cane sugar is highly recommended, although beet sugar is okay.
- Do not use any other sugar — not turbinado, raw, powdered [it contains starch!] or brown sugar etc. OR ORGANIC SUGAR* — and never use honey or artificial sweeteners.
- Spring water is preferred, but most tap water is acceptable.
- If too many bees are being attracted, change the mixture to five cups of water for every one cup of sugar. But a bee problem is, in fact, a feeder design problem, and you need a different feeder–one which makes it impossible for the bees to access the mixture; usually this is by having an air gap between feeder port and the liquid below it.
- Taking down the feeder: In the fall, wait until you haven’t seen even one hummer for three weeks before taking your feeders down to reduce the risks to late migrants.
Photo by Jackie Woodcock (digitally manipulated)