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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