We are lucky to have a number of people in our area who are extremely knowledgeable birders. Monday night, our Bird Club featured a speaker who gave a fascinating talk and slideshow about hummingbirds. The speaker was none other than Virginia’s own birdman extraordinaire, Dr. John Spahr. He has traveled the world in hot pursuit of his avian passion.
I learned that there are over 330 species of hummingbirds – all located in the Americas, from Alaska all the way down to the end of South America. There are no hummingbirds in Europe, Africa, or Asia (sorry). The largest number of hummingbird species (150+) are found in the small South American country of Ecuador.
Dr. Spahr showed us pictures of the most exotic-looking birds I never knew existed with impossible names such as Green Violetear, Long-tailed Sylph, Booted Racket-Tail, Spangled Coquette and Red Saberwing.
Can you imagine a punk-rock bird with a red mohawk, another one with a beak longer than its body, and one with white cotton balls around its feet? Yup, I am not making this up, I saw the pictures. And it’s always the males who are the most flamboyant, as if some painter designed them while under the influence of some hallucinatory drug.
Here, in Virginia, we have exactly one representative from the Trochilidae (Hummingbird) family: the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, named after the red patch on the male’s throat. The ruby throats mate and produce offspring (usually two) during the warmer months before migrating South for the winter. Every once in a while, an errant Anna’s Hummingbird or a Rufous Hummingbird might come through in late fall or even winter. These Western birds should be migrating to Mexico but sometimes find their way East instead. Here are two of “our” ruby throats: a male on the right (with red throat patch) and a female (with a whitish throat).
You often hear a hummingbird first, before you see them. They sound like a large droning insect with their wings flapping up to 200 times per second. Hummingbirds have an “elbow” joint in their wing that is a ball-and-socket joint and allows them to fly backwards and upside down as needed. In slow motion, you can see their wings perform a figure-eight pattern instead of an up and down motion.
Because of their rapid metabolism, hummers have to consume more than their body weight in nectar in one hour. So if a bird weighs 3 grams, it may have to consume close to 4 grams every hour, over 40 grams a day, or the equivalent of sipping 1000 to 2000 flowers each day.
Dr. Spahr also talked about the difference between the sugar water in the feeder and flower nectar. The birds get about 10 calories per feeding from the sugar water, but they get 30 calories per feeding from a flower. Flower nectar also provides electrolytes and small amounts of protein. He advised us not to buy the red-colored sugar solution that is commercially available. The home-made version (1 part sugar to 3 parts water, heated to dissolve the sugar, then cooled) is superior to the colored commercial product.
The hummingbirds’ attractive, iridescent colors are derived, not from pigment on the feathers, but from the feather structure itself. This is why the throat color (also called gorget) of a ruby-throated male can appear black, red, or orange. The following pictures show various levels of red and orange coloring depending on head position and light reflection. I also included an immature male with only some dots of throat coloring which will turn into the full-fledged gorget as he matures into adulthood.
I am hoping that our hummingbird feeders are helping these birds reduce their level of exertion, especially now as they are preparing for migration. They will fly South to the Gulf States. From there, and after doubling their liver size through glucose storage, they cross 500 miles of open ocean to overwinter in Mexico or another Latin American country. If they are lucky, they might rest a few moments on a cruise ship or oil rig.
The first three hummingbird pictures were taken from a Wikipedia site. All the pictures of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are mine. You can see more pictures of exotic hummingbirds on this Wikipedia link.