There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds in the Western Hemisphere but a mere dozen spend their summers in North America. And of those twelve, the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species found east of the Mississippi River. Weighing in at a fraction of an ounce, this thumb-sized little bird is able to fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico during its spring and fall migrations to and from its wintering grounds in Central America. With wing beats that can exceed 50 times a second, this smallest of bird species is one of the few that can hover in midair and it is the only one that can fly backwards. The humming sound created by those wing beats is what gives the hummingbird its name.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are so-called because of the iridescent red patch on the throat of the male. They are common throughout the Finger Lakes Region as anyone with a flower garden or hummingbird feeder knows. They even frequent the hosta blooms deep in the woods where I live. Hummers have the highest rate of metabolism of any warm-blooded creature and require a diet high in ingested sugars to refuel the energy expended during flight. But they can slow that metabolic rate at night or when food is scarce by going into a hibernation-like state of torpor to reserve energy levels.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds feed primarily on the nectar of tubular-shaped red or orange flowers but they also fuel up on the pink and purplish hosta blossoms in my yard. They catch flying insects in midair, steal bugs from spider webs, and sometimes feed on tree sap as well. They are easily attracted to hummingbird feeders—especially bright red ones—but it’s not necessary to color the contents red. Nature’s own nectar is clear anyway.
To make nectar for your feeder, mix one part granulated sugar to four parts of warm water and stir the solution until it is completely dissolved. Boiling the mix will discourage bacterial growth and remove any chlorine that might be in your tap water. If you make a large batch, you can keep it in your refrigerator until it’s needed. Be sure to keep your feeders clean and wash them before each refill. A trick that I use to keep ants off my feeders is to put a few gobs of petroleum jelly on the strings that suspend them. It works and it lasts all summer.
Hummingbird pairs stay together just long enough for mating and courtship, during which time the males engage in aerial dogfights to defend territories, flowers, and feeders. Nests are about two inches across and one inch deep, and are often woven together with strands of spider web. One to three eggs are laid and incubated for about two weeks before they hatch. Babies fledge and leave the nest about three weeks later. Males begin their southward migration in mid-August with females and fledglings following a few weeks behind.