Beauty on the wing
By Susan Campbell
The true herald of spring along the Carolina coast might well be the first male ruby-throated hummingbird, which appears in early April. No other birds compare to these tiny dynamos when it comes to brilliant plumage, attitude and playful antics. Their welcome return from their wintering grounds — as far south as Costa Rica — signals that warm days and an abundance of flowering plants are just around the corner. But it is not until midsummer that these winged jewels really make their presence known.
The ruby-throated is the only species of hummingbird that breeds east of the Appalachians. It is commonly found from late March through early October in our area, but can be spotted in a variety of habitats from the mountains to the coast. Males — who are easy to spot because of their iridescent ruby-red throat patches (called gorgets) — return to set up territories about two weeks ahead of females, often utilizing the same spot in successive summers. A significant percentage of ruby-throated adults breed within their natal area. Although generations may utilize the same general neighborhood, they are solitary creatures. Females, cryptically colored with iridescent green and white plumage, rear the young alone. The task requires approximately six weeks of work at the nest, tending the eggs and then the nestlings, until they are independent. Two young hummingbirds are typically produced from tiny white eggs the size of black-eyed peas. It is not unusual for females to produce two sets of young per season in the Carolinas.
In our area, the first young ruby-throateds begin to leave the nest by early June. The immature males lack the bright gorgets of their fathers, looking far more like their mothers until late winter. But they are very feisty little birds. They seem ready to antagonize each other from the minute they leave the nest, and will commonly pick fights with adults as well as larger species of birds, if they feel so inclined.
Female ruby-throateds can be just as aggressive as males if they so choose. Given that they are actually 20 percent larger in size, they have the advantage when a conflict arises.
The hummingbird’s way of life requires a high-energy diet. Flight speeds upward of 50 miles per hour are not uncommon. Therefore they must consume a good amount of protein per day, which they find in tiny insects, spiders and mites. Ruby-throateds actually spend most of their time foraging in thick vegetation, scouring leaves and stems for a variety of arthropods. Invariably some prey items are swallowed with the nectar from the brightly colored blooms they visit. So a high-quality hummingbird habitat includes not only a variety of colorful plants with tubular blooms, but also a minimal use of pesticides to ensure good insect diversity.
Now is the time to hang a sugar-water feeder to attract the attention of local ruby-throateds, if you have not already done so. Place the feeder where it can be easily seen and enjoyed. And the more feeders you add, the more hummingbirds you will attract. Just be sure to clean and refill the feeders regularly. When daytime temperatures climb above 70 degrees, they will require attention every three to five days or the solution will begin to ferment. Simply empty, scrub with hot water and a bottle brush and then refill. Detergents should be avoided since they often leave residue on the plastic portions of the feeder, which the birds can detect. Use of a 10 percent bleach solution may be necessary. Just be sure to thoroughly rinse and dry all feeders before they are replaced.
Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.