Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… every spring, about the first week of May, I can expect to hear a familiar whir of wings and chipping sounds, to make me aware that this territory is being reclaimed, and where did you put our feeders. The male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) has returned. Ruby-throated is our only eastern hummingbird. The other seventeen species of hummingbirds that can be found in North America, reside west of the Mississippi River. The males will arrive in our area a few days prior to the females’ arrival. The migrating hummingbirds will have journeyed nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of about five hundred miles. Before starting their journey, they will double their body weight in fat and live off their body fat while flying over the water. Migrating from Central America across the Gulf waters will take them about twenty hours, but they still have a long, long way to travel.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds have a phenomenal metabolic rate that is higher than any other animal. Their heart rate is about one thousand two hundred and sixty beats per minute, and their breathing rate is about two hundred and fifty breaths per minute, even while resting. Scientists have learned that during flight, the hummingbird consumes ten times more oxygen than human “elite athletes.” Their wings can beat fifty-three times per second as they hover and feed. In addition to flying forward, they can also fly backward and upside down. The male’s aerial mating display includes flying back and forth like a pendulum in front of the female until she is accepting, and then they will mate.
Males are polygamous and will mate with more than one female. Males take no responsibility in nest making, incubating, or caring for the nestlings. The female is the architect designing the lichen-covered nest, laying two or occasionally three eggs, and perhaps reusing the same nest for a second brooding in the same season. The cup-shaped nest is about one inch in width and depth. She assembles it with plant materials and spider webs and covers the outside with greenish-gray lichen. The silky spider webs allow for the expansion of the nest as the nestlings grow within it. She will line the inside of the nest with dandelion or colt’s foot downy seed fluff. The female will most often nest in a mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. The nesting trees of choice are usually six to fifty feet tall, with ten to twenty feet being the average height. She attaches the nest to a small twig or small branch that slants downward from the tree, is sheltered above by leafy branches, and has an open area below the nesting site. The female will take about seven or eight days to complete her nest.
The eggs which she lays are glossy white and about the size of a white bean. She will incubate the eggs for approximately fourteen to sixteen days. The nestlings are born altricial, which means they are immobile, downless, with closed eyes, and need to be fed. For the first few days, shortly after being fed, the nestlings will expel a fecal sac after eating. The female will remove the fecal sac preventing the nest from being contaminated with feces. On approximately day three, the nestlings will move to the edge of the nest and “squirt” their waste over the side of the nest. The nestlings grow very quickly and need to be fed constantly. The female will retrieve nectar from flowers; find small insects like aphids and tiny spiders, working continually throughout the daylight hours to feed her hungry brood. Thankfully they grow quickly and are ready to fledge within fourteen to twenty-eight days. At fledging, they will be fully feathered and able to fly and find their own food. They will undoubtedly still beg for food, and she will teach them how and what to eat.
Hummingbirds have a tongue that is long and forked. It is actually two times longer than its beak and is lined with a “hair-like fringe” that is called lamellae. As the hummingbird extends its tongue into a tubular flower where the liquid nectar is found, the tongue laps up the nectar and pulls it back into its beak. Male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds live about five years, and the life expectancy of the female is about nine years. Their tiny bodies are between 2.8 inches to 3.5 inches in length for the male and 3.1 inches to 4.3 inches for the female. The male’s weight is estimated at 0.12 ounces, and the female is slightly larger at 0.13 ounces. They are dimorphic, which means they appear different in color and size. The male is an iridescent deeper green than the female and has a ruby-colored gorget (throat patch) which, in certain lighting, can appear black. His chest is a sooty white in color. The female coloring is a limier green iridescent, and she also has a sooty white breast but no gorget. They both have tiny feet and even though they are most often seen flying or hovering, they can perch on a twig or on the provided perch of a hummingbird feeder. In winter, they molt their worn feathers and replace them with new ones. They can often be observed on a twig preening their feathers using their feet as “combs” to scratch their neck or head.
Some of our native wildflowers that are preferred by the hummingbirds are columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in the spring and both red cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and jewelweed/spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) in the fall. Hummingbirds are instrumental in pollinating all three of these flowers because of their long beak and tongues. It becomes a symbiotic relationship for both, providing food for one and continuation of the species for the other.
Other interesting facts are that the males will depart for their winter habitat about a month before the females and the fledglings. Each species of hummingbird have a unique “humming sound” in flight due to the number of wing beats per species. The ruby-throated hummingbird in flight beats its wings fifty-three beats per second. Unfortunately, hummingbirds occasionally fall prey to predators such as sharp-shinned hawks and other small raptors. Blue jays and crows will sometimes eat the nestlings, and house cats have also been known to prey on hummingbirds. On a happier note, they always seem to bring us great joy. I sincerely thank my dear neighbors and close friends for giving me an opportunity to photograph the hummingbird nest and nestlings which appear in this column. A joy that is shared is a joy made double… Thank you so much.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, and did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016, she has been writing a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.