On the Wing

(repost from August 29, 2009 on Intelligence with the Earth)

For weeks the yard has hummed (yes, that’s a pun) with ruby-throated hummingbirds. Throughout the day males, females, and juveniles zipped between feeders, flowers, perches, and hideouts. The chase was always on, and tiny birds whizzed past us, in pursuit or retreat, whenever we ventured into the yard. Actual fights between hummingbirds are apparently uncommon, though they seem to expend endless energy keeping each other from nectar sources.

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 Smithsonianmagazine. 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!

Pileated WoodpeckerThe total length of this adult male pileated woodpecker may be close to half a meter. Imagine a hummingbird with those proportions!

The dogfights haven’t ended among our remaining hummingbirds, but a sudden decline in population density has reduced the intensity of these interactions. Three days ago I noticed the absence of any males in the yard. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds always leave in August, heading gradually toward the Gulf Coast. Females and juveniles remain somewhat longer, into October if conditions permit. During that time they may share the yard with dark-eyed juncos and pine siskins. These songbirds also travel south after nesting, but because they eat seed (among other reasons) their migration from Canada may end right here in central Minnesota.

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.

Hummingbird resting on raingaugeAudubon 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.



  1. attattKache said,

    December 12, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Wow enjoyed reading this article. I submitted your feed to my reader!!

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