Here Come the Hummingbirds

By Pat Dickey, Fairfax Master Gardener
hummingbirdRuby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are now migrating to our area and are expected to arrive here between April 1 and April 15. These incredible little creatures spend the winter in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Islands and then fly to the eastern United States and Canada for the spring and summer. They each make the entire journey here alone! To prepare for their long flight, they eat every fifteen minutes and twice their weight the week before their migration. While flying, they are always on the brink of starvation. Their migration journey is about 1,600 kilometers or 994 miles. They fly non-stop across the 500 miles of the Gulf of Mexico.

Males will arrive first to stake out their territories. These tiny birds are an iridescent green with white bellies. During the breeding season, they have brilliant red-orange coloring on their throats. The males aggressively defend their chosen feeders and flowers, creating chases and fights among themselves. They will even occasionally jab each other with their beaks. Females have grayish throats with white and green on their upper bodies.

hummingbird nestThey select the nesting sites, build tiny nests and take care of their young without the males. They site their nests on descending branches 10 to 40 feet above the ground in their favorite trees, including oak (Quercus), hornbeam (Carpinus), birch (Betula), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) and sometimes pine (Pinus). The nests are the size of a thimble made of thistle or dandelion down and held together with strands of spider silk. As the baby fledglings grow, the nest expands up to 2 inches across to accommodate them.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only species that breed in the eastern part of the United States, which is the largest breeding area for hummingbirds. They favor our backyards and parks, but can be seen in meadows, on stream borders, in orchards and in deciduous woodlands. They love red, orange and pink tubular flowers. Among their favorite nectar sources are trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), coral bells (Heuchera americana), foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), red and yellow bee balm (Monarda), red morning glory (Ipomoea coccinea), azaleas (Rhododendron sp.), rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) and columbine (Aquilegia). The cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is particularly valued, since it blooms in August and September when the hummingbirds are preparing to leave for their southern migration. These hummingbirds also eat spiders, small flies, gnats and aphids as sources of fat and protein.

You can also attract them to your yard with a hummingbird feeder. Place it in a shady area so that the nectar will not spoil as quickly on hot days. Boil 4 parts water with 1 part sugar and allow it to cool. Red coloring is not necessary. Change the water every three to four days and thoroughly clean the feeder. Enjoy watching these acrobatic birds as they fly up, down, sideways and backwards. But be sure to keep your cats away, since they are the leading predators of hummingbirds. Also, keep the feeders away from windows so the hummingbirds will not fly into them. Enjoy these tiny wonders!

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, All about Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Journey North, Tracking Migrations and Seasons, Annenberg Learner
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Coevolution Institute, Forest Service, US Dept of Agriculture
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Maryland Dept of Natural Resources
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology