The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird is often deemed the cutest bird around. Sure, they buzz when they fly, their feathers shimmer in the sunlight and their eggs are the size of jellybeans.
All of that is decidedly cute. But this little bird is tougher than it looks and may just surprise you.
One of a kind
There are more than 360 species of hummingbirds in the world. Of those, 23 live in North America. In Will County, we have only the ruby-throated hummingbird. The red throat of the male is what gives it its name. The young and female hummingbirds have a white throat to match their belly. And while some of our native birds may have some olive green on them, our ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the few native birds that is a bright emerald green.
Words to know
Hover: To remain in one place in the air.
Nectar: A sugary liquid secreted by plants to encourage pollination.
Shimmer: To shine in the light.
Territorial: Protective of ownership of an area.
You can tell you’re looking at a hummingbird by its long, thin bill and wings that seem to never stop moving. They are often found at bright red, tube-shaped flowers, which allow their long bills to go in so they can drink the nectar. One of their favorite native plants is cardinal flower.
They are usually seen flying, and their tiny feet are barely noticeable. Sometimes people think they don’t have feet at all. They do! Try to look for them perched in branches around flowers and feeders. Their green color helps them blend in with the leaves, so be sure to look closely.
Our hummers, as they are sometimes called by birders, are only 3 1/2 inches long from head to tail. That is about the same length as a credit card. They weigh about the same as one to three pennies (0.1 ounces to 0.2 ounces).
Just because they are small and light doesn’t mean they’re not ferocious. As William Shakespeare once wrote, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” This is also true of ruby-throated hummingbirds.
They are fiercely territorial. They will dive at other hummingbirds that come too close to their favorite feeder or flower or their nest. It’s like a bird with a sword on its face coming right for the invader! They will buzz loudly as well. A male’s territory can be up to a quarter of an acre. Females usually limit their territory to their nest and a favorite food source.
They are also aggressive predators. Humans tend to see them drinking nectar, but they also hunt insects out of the air, including mosquitoes. Sometimes they will even steal insects out of a spider’s web. Once they’ve finished the insects from the web, they might just come back for the spider too. They will feed the insects and spiders to their babies in the nest.
Hummingbirds are tough and brightly colored, but what really sets them is their unique flight abilities. Most birds can fly straight and up and down. Hummers can do that and quickly, but they also fly backwards and side to side and even hover. Hovering, or staying still while in flight, is so rare in the natural world that humans actually borrowed the idea for helicopters from the way their wings move. Their ability to move so rapidly and precisely allows them to pluck flying insects out of the sky.
Returning to nest
Our hummingbirds spend their winters in Mexico and the tropics, but they are beginning to return to our yards and meadows. Now, and for the next few weeks, is the time to look for the first arrivals. They might be in the trees building their nests out of lichen and spiderwebs. They might be buzzing around freshly set up feeders. And they might be secretly perched on a branch.
To watch the spring migration of all the hummingbirds in the United States, check out Hummingbird Central’s 2022 Migration Map. You can find out if they’re in your neighborhood now or if they’re still on their way.
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.