It hovers! It flies backwards! It’s fiercely protective of its territory. It weighs about as much as a nickel (around 5 grams) and gets most of its food from flowers. It’s not an insect or a secret military experiment. It is a ruby throated hummingbird.
There are a lot of special things about ruby throats, or hummers. They’re the smallest bird in New England. They migrate farther than most other types of hummingbirds (from New England all the way to Mexico, and some fly across the Gulf of Mexico, 500 miles, without stopping!) The ruby throat is also the only hummingbird found east of the Mississippi River. They make one of the smallest nests and lay one of the smallest eggs of any New England bird. And they are pollinators, just like the tiger swallowtail and orchard mason bee.
Hummers in Your Flowers
Sucking nectar Hummers are hyper, and need to eat twice their body weight each day. In human terms this means that if you weigh 100 pounds, you would eat 400 hamburgers a day. So a hummer has to visit hundreds of flowers every day to get enough nectar. They like flowers that have lots of nectar, and those that have very sweet nectar – that means there’s more available energy.
If your computer will support it, www.amherst.edu has a video of a hummingbird feeding on a jewelweed flower . The hummer spends about two seconds at the flower. Although it’s too fast to see, in that time its tongue darts into the flower, lapping up nectar, over twenty times. If you did that at your dinner table you’d likely be excused. But the hummer rushes off to another flower, and another and another until day ends. In fact some studies show that hummers go to more flowers than honeybees or bumblebees.
All that nectar lapping is great for flowers. Every time the hummer’s head and beak go into a flower some pollen gets stuck on them. Then they zoom over to another flower and the hummer, without knowing it, pollinates the next flower. Of course, this works out well for both the flower and the bird. The hummer gets high-energy food, the flower gets pollinated, making a seed, and next summer when the seed becomes a plant, the hummer gets another flower for food. Imagine if the same thing happened for people and pizza!
Want to see hummers in real life? You can plant a hummer garden (see the Going Native Sidebar), or provide an artificial source of nectar. Visit www.dupageforest.com to see how to make and maintain a hummer feeder and a special sugar water that resembles nectar. Be sure to follow the directions carefully, as it is important to the bird’s health.