Monday, May 30, 2022

The Remarkable Migration and Solitary Lifestyle of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is the only hummingbird species commonly seen in northern New York. Like all hummingbirds, they belong to the avian family Trochilidae. They’re our region’s smallest breeding bird, only growing to about 3 inches long, with a wingspan of around 3 to 4 inches and a body weight of just 2 to 6 grams (roughly the weight of a teaspoon of sugar).
Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Migration 
    The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is migratory. They return to the North Country every year starting in May. The first to arrive are usually males.
    When adequate flower sources and supplemental feeding are available, a small number of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds will spend the winter months in Florida, in areas along the southern extremes of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. But most of them will overwinter in Central America, between southern Mexico and western Panama. In both the spring and the fall, many of them travel a migration route that includes a difficult, sometimes punishing, non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. By most accounts, the flyover takes 18 to 20 hours, under favorable conditions.
    In order to successfully complete such a challenging endeavor, the tiny crusaders must first double their body mass, by fattening up on nectar and insects, in the weeks prior to their departure. Even so, these fearless flyers must make the crossing without shelter or sustenance. Unanticipated cold fronts, headwinds, and/or heavy rain can make the already arduous crossing even more difficult.
    Interestingly, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are solitary creatures. They neither live nor migrate in flocks. They fly alone. Older birds navigate along the same flight path they’ve flown earlier in life. But youngsters must find their way without assistance.
    They fly low, just above the tree tops or water, which allows them to locate nectar-producing plants and stop for nourishment along the way. Stops may last only a few minutes; just long enough to take in some quick refreshment. Or they may last for a few days in places where food is plentiful.
    There are differing views as to what triggers their migration, but the general consensus is that they sense changes in the duration of daylight and the availability of nectar and insects.

Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Photo credit: Joey Herron; Macaulay Library; Cornell Lab of Ornithology


    Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds never form male-female pair-bonds. After courtship and mating; often just a matter of days; the male leaves the females to assume sole responsibility for constructing and maintaining a nest, incubating her eggs, and caring for her young, once they hatch. She must keep the nestlings away from direct sunlight, shelter them from wind and rain, protect them from predators, and forage for arthropods (insects and spiders), in order to provide them with the dietary protein they require for healthy growth. (Some scientists believe that the importance of arthropod foraging to feed nestlings may explain why, in many hummingbird species including the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, females have longer bills than males.)
    The female builds her cup-shaped nest directly on top of a branch, rather than in a branch fork or crotch. Nests are so small that they’re often compared in size to thimbles. They’re thick-walled yet delicate. They’re constructed of fine grasses, plant fibers, and downy materials, such as the seed heads of dandelions and thistle, neatly woven together with silky spider webbing, which promotes flexibility and allows the sides to stretch, as the babies grow.
    The female shapes the rim of the nest by pressing and smoothing it between her neck and chest. To reinforce the bottom, she’ll stomp it down until it’s stiff. Bits of lichen and moss will then be used to camouflage the newly-created nest.
    Once her eggs are laid, she’ll incubate them until they hatch, in about two weeks. Three weeks after hatching, her young will be able to fly.
    Females occasionally begin building a second nest while still feeding the young in the first. They usually raise just one or two broods each year.
Fun Facts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 
– The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird beats its wings about 53 times a second.
– 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.
– Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds prefer to feed on red or orange flowers (though it’s not necessary to color the sugar water you put in a hummingbird feeder).
– Like many birds, hummingbirds can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, which humans can’t.
– Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are accustomed to human habitation and have been known to nest on loops of chain, wire, and extension cords.
– Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are eastern North America’s only breeding hummingbird. But in terms of area, they occupy the largest breeding range of any of the 20 North American hummingbird species.
– The oldest known Ruby-Throated Hummingbird was a female and at least 9 years, 2 months old when she was recaptured and rereleased in 2014, during banding operations in West Virginia.
Photo at top: Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Photo credit: Bellemare Celine; Macaulay Library; Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

9 Responses

  1. WTA says:

    Thank you so much for another great article. Because I watch bird cams and nest cams especially at HummingBirdSpot on YouTube, I’ve seen the similar Anna’s, Allen’s, and rufous hummingbirds and seen the babies grow up a few times until they fledged.
    Last winter on a Key Largo cam, they had ruby-throated hummingbirds and I was wondering if they would continue any further south, but they didn’t.
    The red-throated seemed to visit when the bigger birds were away.

    For those that are lucky enough to live in an area that has these beauties passing by, the best way to feed them is to make your own nectar of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar.
    Red dye is a bad gimmick to make people think that red is needed somehow so that you can buy their product, when in reality, that dye is harmful to the birds.
    I also didn’t know that the feeders need to be changed every 2 days to 7 days depending on the temperature until I watched the cams.
    If the water isn’t changed and feeders cleaned, the birds can get a swollen infected tongue from fungus and mold to where they can die or take what seemed like weeks to recover.
    When I first started feeding birds (though not hummingbirds), I made a few mistakes that I wish people could have taught me sooner.

  2. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Most interesting, thank you.

  3. Tamara swallows says:

    Love reading about beautiful hummingbirds.

  4. Deborah A Sullivan says:

    I’m from Massachusetts & every spring(last 4 yrs) I put my feeders out in late April. Wait for Ruby- Throated to arrive. This yr. it was May 8th I seen my first. He came right to my porch. I know there’s also a female here because I’ve seen him dive at her when she tries to eat. These little gems are so amazing to watch, he gets curious & gets pretty close;. He’ll fly in2 the open porch & just hover in front of me. They make my day I get up make my coffee sit on porch & their usually at my feeders by 6:30AM,❗ Love Them

  5. Boreas says:

    Hard to believe this is where dinosaurs ended up…

  6. Michael Sinclair says:

    great article! we love to see these tiny birds arriving year after year.

  7. Danny White says:

    It’s good to see these guys in the spring, it a mood up lift and so starts one more of my summer chores .we need to take care of these little guys because like the Bee’s I’m sure they help spread pollen , make there necter one part sugar to 4 parts freash clean water I use distilled or spring water . Pretty sure that city water with chlorine is isnt health for them . And when it’s all gone they will zip around you untill it’s full and if lucky and don’t move they’ll might land on your finger Enjoy Mother Nature . Have a good Day !

  8. David Bower says:

    In the area around Corpus Christi and Rockport TX, hummingbirds eat and pack on fat as much as possible, waiting for a norther to provide a tailwind for the long non-stop flight to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Thousands of ruby-throated hummers pack the area in September, and the Rockport area has a Hummer/Bird Festival in mid-September, with activities and local backyards open for festival-goers to view the dozens of birds packed at their feeders. The birds temporarily relent in their wars for territory, and it’s nothing at that time to see feeders with every perch filled, and the air literally hums with their wingbeats. It’s an amazing sight!

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