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Here in the South-Eastern U.S., we just spotted our first Ruby Throated Hummingbird of the season! If you've not done so already, it's time to clean out and refill your hummingbird feeders, because the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, "the king of nature's frequent flyers," is on its way back to the eastern U.S. In the United States, you can find over 16 kinds of hummingbirds. For people east of the Rockies, the most prevalent by far is the Ruby-Throated. In fact, the Ruby-Throated is the most widely distributed of the world's 338 species of hummingbirds, all of which occur ONLY in the Western Hemisphere.
The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is often found between woodland and meadow. However, it has adapted well to human development, but only if there is shelter, space and food. Thus, it is frequently seen in suburban backyards with mature trees and shrubs, in wooded parks and around farmsteads. The keys to attracting hummingbirds are to provide food, nesting materials and water misters for them to fly through. Hummingbirds are extremely loyal to feeding sites. A hummingbird that feeds in your yard one year will return to that feeder the next.
If you aren't attracting as many hummers as you want - read on! As the male Ruby-Throated is so territorial, one key is to offer lots of feeders. For both the male and female, there are two 'Golden Rules' for your hummingbird feeders. Keep the feeder clean and the nectar fresh. Hummingbirds keep their distance from fermented nectar. Perhaps hummers understand that they need a clear head for their acrobatic flying. Fermented nectar, which can occur in a few days in hot summer months, can support the growth of deadly molds. If a hummingbird gets a taste of fermented nectar from your feeder, it will look elsewhere for a drink and remain suspicious of the offending feeder for a long time.
Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds spend the winter in Mexico and Central America, and begin leaving in January. The males leave first, followed about ten days later by the females, but their exit from Central America is spread over a three months period, and they do not migrate in flocks. These factors eliminate the possibility of losing the species to storms. Some will take the long route over land, hugging the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Others will take the over-water route, landing in North America from Texas to the Florida panhandle. The 500-odd mile flight takes about 20 hours, and the birds may loose half of their pre-migration weight. To make the trip, they must eat enough so they weigh 1 1/2 times their usual weight. Once in North America, the birds move steadily northwards, covering about twenty miles per day. Banding studies have indicated that the birds tend to return to where they hatched.
A few fun facts: 1. Hummingbirds can fly at speeds of 60 miles per hour and can fly forwards, backwards, up, down, sideways and even upside down briefly, but they can't walk. 2. They consume half their body weight (1/8 lb) in food every day. That would be like an average kid eating about 40 to 50 pounds of food a day! 3. Their hearts beat about 1,260 times per minute, and they take about 250 breaths per minute. 4. They have 1,500 feathers. 5. A hummingbird nest is not much bigger than a quarter and often contains just 2-3 eggs no bigger than small peas.
So the "Platinum Medallion" of frequent flyers is now on its way back. But why go to all the trouble? Why do they migrate? You have to think back to the last ice age for the answer. As the ice covering most of North America retreated, some tropical birds discovered there was less competition for food and shelter if they moved northward, following the retreating ice. Some song birds could survive the colder climate, eating berries and seeds when insects were no longer available. They're the birds we enjoy year round. The Ruby-Throats, however, are carnivorous and must rely on nectar of flowering plants and insects. Now is the time to put out your hummingbird feeders, and welcome your Ruby-Throats back! Help them enjoy their summer at your house, then prepare them with plenty of fresh food for their long journey south.