Nature Notes: Hummingbirds flying wonders in our back yards

A male ruby-throated hummingbird approaches a feeder. They are one of the few birds in the world that can fly forwards, backwards, upside down and hover. (Photo by Bill Hobbs)
A male ruby-throated hummingbird approaches a feeder. They are one of the few birds in the world that can fly forwards, backwards, upside down and hover. (Photo by Bill Hobbs)

One of the prettiest and smallest birds we see in many of our back yards is a flying wonder, the ruby-throated hummingbird.

“They’re like little helicopters,” said Maggie Jones, executive director of Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. “Their ability to maneuver their wings is extraordinary.”

Jones is talking about a well-known bird, common to Connecticut, that is one of the few in the world that can stop in mid-flight, fly backwards, forwards, upside down and hover, beating its wings 53 times a second.

How do you recognize these fast-moving birds? Male ruby-throated hummingbirds have a prominent red patch on their throats, called a gorget (females are white-colored).

They also have a noticeable “black chin, iridescent greenish feathers on their back, whitish below, and a long needle-like bill for sipping nectar from flowers,” writes Roger Tory Peterson in his classic “A Field Guide to the Birds, Eastern Land and Water Birds.”

Until recently, scientists believed hummingbirds used their bills like a straw, inserting them into tubular flowers to “suck” out the nectar.

But in 2015, three University of Connecticut scientists looked at 18 different hummingbird species and debunked that premise, claiming instead that hummingbirds use tiny pumps in their tongues to extract the nectar.

According to a UConn Communications article, research scientist Alejandro Rico-Guevara, professor Margaret Rubega from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Tai-Hsi Fan, associate professor of mechanical engineering, carefully examined the grooved tongues of hummingbirds and concluded “The nectar is drawn into the tongue by the elastic expansion of the grooves after they are squeezed flat by the beak.”

In other words, the hummingbird’s tiny tongue and beak work like a squeeze bulb on the fuel line of an outboard engine. If you squeeze the bulb, it fills up and sends fuel into the engine. The same principle exists when hummingbirds probe for nectar.

“When the hummingbird squeezes nectar off its tongue during protrusion, it is collapsing the grooves and loading elastic energy into the groove walls,” the scientists said, adding “That energy subsequently facilitates the pumping of more nectar.” It was a revelation that turned heads in the birding world.

Migration for ruby-throated hummingbirds is nothing short of a miracle. Most winter in Southern Mexico to Costa Rica, then fly to the Yucatan Peninsula in late February or early March, where they gas up on insects before crossing the Gulf of Mexico.

“Ruby-throated hummingbirds cross the Gulf nonstop in 24-26 hours, if they’re lucky. Hit headwinds or get blown off course slightly, and the trip becomes risky business,” said Lanny Chambers, founder of Hummingbirds.net, a website that’s tracked hummingbird migrations for 20 years.

In an email, he explained why:

“Before leaving the Yucatan Peninsula (a staging area for many migratory birds), a hummingbird will gorge on insects and small spiders until it has stored enough fat to power the nonstop trip,” Chambers said.

“Laboratory-derived estimates of the range of a fully-fattened ruby-throated run about 600 miles. The Gulf crossing is about 500 miles,” Chambers said.

“So, it wouldn’t take much of a headwind to prevent a hummer from running out of fuel before landfall.”

Thankfully, millions of ruby-throated hummingbirds and many other migratory birds successfully navigate the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes twice a year, a staggering feat.

After crossing the Gulf, ruby-throated hummingbirds, according to scientists, average about 10 miles a day, flying up various migratory flyways before reaching Connecticut and other parts of New England and southern Canada by late April or early May to begin breeding.

“It’s our signature hummingbird,” Jones said, adding “Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only hummingbirds that regularly breed east of the Great Plains states.”

Enjoy!

Bill Hobbs is a resident of Stonington and a life-long wildlife enthusiast. For comments, he can be reached at whobbs246@gmail.com.

Attracting hummingbirds

— plant Lobelia cardinal (Cardinal flower), bee balm, native red honeysuckle, trumpet or goldenflame honeysuckle in your yards.

— buy an inexpensive hummingbird feeder, fill it with sugar water and hang it high.

(The formula for sugar water is 1 cup of granulated sugar to 4 cups water, bring it to a brief boil, turn it off and let it cool.)

— sugar water should be changed about every three days to prevent fermentation.

 

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