Once the females appear, I often hear chittering calls among the trees. But it takes sharp eyes and patience to see the birds firsthand. Adult ruby-throated hummingbirds seek insect prey to feed their miniscule but voracious young, making only rushed visits to the nectar feeder for their own refreshment. I stop to look for them when I first come downstairs in those still-dim minutes before sunrise, or when the evening shadows are long over the feeders.
A female ruby-throated hummingbird ducks in to drink from the feeder, but drinks without perching--it's a fast-food operation during the nesting season.
In Birds of America, John James Audubon described this habit. “They are quarrelsome,” he wrote, “and have frequent battles in the air, especially the male birds. Should one be feeding on a flower, and another approach it, they are both immediately seen to rise in the air, twittering and twirling in a spiral manner until out of sight.”
A few years back I read an article about hummingbirds in Smithsonian magazine. The author commented how fortunate it is that hummingbirds are not as large as crows. That image has remained in my mind. The ruby-throated hummingbird’s bill accounts for one-fifth of its body length. Expand the hummer to crow-size and its bill would be more than 10 centimeters long. The pileated woodpecker provides a useful model. This bird is of comparable size to the American crow, but its bill is elongated like Pinocchio’s nose after he’s told a series of whoppers. Rather than being chisel-shaped like the woodpecker's, however, a hummingbird's bill is rapier-thin and sharp. Our Superhummer would be a Musketeer among birds. Mon dieu!
The total length of this adult male pileated woodpecker may be close to half a meter. Imagine a hummingbird with these proportions!
I have often wondered whether the same birds somehow return year after year to our yard. Site fidelity is an aspect of migration that is of concern to biologists. But it can be difficult to prove. Banding studies shed some light on the question for ornithologists. Captured birds are fitted with tiny metal leg bands. Each band is stamped with a unique number, and may also carry a discrete color pattern. Bands allow individual birds to be identified upon sighting or recapture. At Hilton Pond Center in York, South Carolina, biologists banded 3,614 ruby-throated hummingbirds between 1984 and 2007. More than 430 of these birds came back to Hilton Pond the spring after banding. A couple returned several years in a row. Amazing information can be obtained from such simple techniques, but they require funding, staff, and infinite patience.
Audubon wasn’t terribly scientific when he described the ruby-throated hummingbird as a “glittering fragment of the rainbow”—but he was utterly accurate. I watch a little female perch atop our rain gauge between bouts of feeding and chasing. Her belly is rotund with nectar and she looks perfectly fit. This wee gem has a long journey ahead. I don’t know if she’ll make it back to this yard in the spring. But we’ll keep the nectar flowing, just in case.
Satiated after feeding, this hummingbird rests on a raingauge.