This tiny jewel is the only one of the 16 species of Hummingbirds in the U.S. to regularly nest in the eastern part of the country. It is also one of the smallest of the species, weighing from 2 to 6 grams, or approximately 0.2 of an ounce. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are medium to long-distance migrants. While the majority will spend the winter in Central America after flying nearly 600 miles across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, some will remain in far southern Florida and extreme southern portions of the gulf coast of the U.S. These are believed to be birds which nested far to the north.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds occur during the summer months throughout the deciduous woodlands of eastern North America from the Atlantic into the eastern Central Great Plains, and across the Southern Canadian Prairies. However, for the most part, people living in the Eastern Great Plains attract Ruby-throats only during their spring and late summer migrations, that is, unless you live in riparian areas such as the Missouri River Valley or along the Eastern Platte River in Nebraska. These woody riparian areas in the eastern plains states lay on the western edge of their range.
It is difficult to say whether the nesting territory of this hummingbird is expanding westward with the succession of trees into the prairies. We do seem to be receiving more reports each year of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds remaining throughout the summer west of their traditional summer range. Although undocumented, people in Southeastern Nebraska have reported hummingbirds throughout the summer along the 15 mile stretch of Salt Creek that runs through Wilderness Park in Lincoln, the complex of Nemaha Rivers that drain east into the Missouri River, and most recently near Wagon Train Lake near the headwaters of several watershed areas.
These areas would appear to provide adequate habitat for nesting Ruby-throated hummingbirds. They are commonly found in old fields and meadows along forested or wooded edges, orchards, or the edges of streams, rivers, and creeks. For most of Eastern Nebraska they remain unpredictable which is why it is exciting to see these hummingbirds when we are able to attract them to the flower gardens and hummingbird feeders we provide.
They Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which are the only hummingbirds that breeds in Eastern North America, arrives in the upper Midwest and Eastern Great Plains about the first of May, usually by Mother’s Day. Their visit in the spring may be brief if they are just migrating through. On their return trip south they begin to pass through the first part of August. Their retreat south is much more relaxed and they commonly remain as long as the weather is agreeable, nectar is plentiful, and a good supply of small insects are available. Male hummingbirds seem to precede the females in migration in the spring and fall. Since their return south will be a slow and unhurried, most of us who don’t see them during the summer have a good chance to enjoy them now.
Small invertebrate insects and spiders are the main food sources for hummingbirds. They can catch insects in mid-air and have been seen pulling insects from spider webs. Some of their prey includes mosquitoes, gnats, small caterpillars, and fruit flies along with small spiders. They will also collect the aphids from leaves and plant stalks.
The sweet nectar of flowers and hummingbird feeders only provide the carbohydrates these little power-houses need for the energy it takes to maintain their high metabolism rate. The number of wing beats per second range from 55, while hovering, to 85 while in direct flight and much higher when in a dive. High speed cameras have unlocked the many secrets of hummingbird behavior to us, such as their unique ability to fly backwards for short distances, and upside-down.
Red, and other brightly colored tubular flowers, will catch the attention of hummingbirds, as tubular flowers have higher nectar content. Keep this in mind when planting your flower garden. Red salvia is an excellent selection and will surely attract hummingbirds in the fall. Plant flowers for both early and late blooming, thus ensuring a summer long feast if you live in or near a heavily wooded riparian area.
All hummingbirds are precision aerial acrobats. While flying at top speed they have the ability to abruptly stop in mid air, reposition themselves by darting up, down, sideways, and even backwards. Then, in the blink of an eye, return to top speed darting between hummingbird feeders and flowers. The male Ruby-throated Hummingbird can become very aggressive defending the flowers and feeders. Between short feeding trips he will often perch on a branch where he has a view of his conquered energy sources. If another hummingbird attempts to deprive him of his nectar it can lead to spectacular chases and aerial dogfights.
There seems to be no family bond between male and female. After copulation the female builds her nest, lays her normal 2 white eggs and then incubates, hatches and rears her young with no help at all from the male. She will build her nest from a combination of plant down, spider silk and lichens. This jumbo thimble is usually placed on a slightly down sloping limb. With the bluish green look, after the lichens have been applied to the outside surface, it now appears as nothing more than a lump on the limb and is very difficult to see. When the nest is finished, she will then lay her 2 pea sized eggs which will take about 16 days to hatch. The babies remain in the nest for 3 weeks or more before they fledge. The female turns on the nest by rising up in the air like a helicopter, turns and lowers back down in a new position. As the young grow in size the nest will stretch to accommodate the two siblings. When the day of the nestling’s first flight nears, they will hang on the edges of the nest and beat their wings to exercise and strengthen them. Many report flights of 50 feet or more on the first attempt. The common problem, as with most fledging birds, is the landing.
The young males and females closely resemble their mother in color and the young male will start to get some red flecking on his throat by fall. This will graduate to the full red garget by the following spring. The male will flash his ruby throat when excited or as a warning.
All species of hummingbirds are a fascination for any bird enthusiast or those who just enjoy observing the natural world around us. For some it may take time and patience to attract these little dynamos, but the effort is well worth it when they arrive.
Contributed by Mr. Weir Nelson of Wildlife Habitat, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Wingtip: If an aggressive male hummingbird keeps others from enjoying the sweet nectar you are providing in a hummingbird feeder, try placing a second nectar feeder out of sight of the first, such as on the opposite side of your house. This aggressive male cannot patrol both feeders at once thus allowing others to enjoy the sugary treat.
Wingtip: Bananas have Ahh Peel To Hummingbirds
Peel a banana. Go ahead and eat the fruit or place it in a dish out in the yard for the butterflies as it ferments and spoils. As for the banana peel, tie a string around the end and hang it from a small branch. In a matter of an hour it will attract little fruit gnats. These little insects provide a rich protein food source for hummingbirds.
Published by The Wild Bird Habitat Store