Thursday, May 6, 2010

LOOK FOR: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

North America is a summer home to 15 species of hummingbirds, but only one species -- the ruby throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris -- comes to Washington, DC. These tiny three-inch birds migrate 2,000 miles from Central America every spring to breed here. Have you ever seen one here? They're more common than you may think.

ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilocus colubris
Photo credit: Jason Means
Archilochus is named after a Greek warrior-poet, but hummingbirds don't have a lyrical song, just a little high-pitched chatter. Once you learn to recognize the buzz of their super-fast wings, though, it's a sure tip-off for spotting them. So much so that it's part of the "typical voice" recording for hummingbirds on All About Birds.

Those tiny wings are beating about 53 times a second. They give hummingbirds helicopter-like abilities -- they're one of the only birds that can hover or fly backwards. Which is pretty fun to see. They can also fly really fast -- which makes them hard to see.

Your best bet is to find flowers that hummingbirds like to feed on. In our yard, the sure winners every year are bee balm, cardinal flower, and native honeysuckle. Other flowers we've seen them on in the wild include jewelweed, trumpet creeper, and even common milkweed. Notice anything these flowers have in common? They're all trumpet-shaped, perfect for the hummer's long beak. And they've all got red or orange flowers.

ruby-throated hummingbird on cardinal flower
hummingbird on cardinal flower in our yard
But hummingbirds don't subsist on a pure sugar diet -- they'll eat small insects like ants, gnats, and mosquitoes. One more reason to love them!

The biggest treat is when the light catches a bird just right -- its feathers, which may have looked more or less gray a moment ago, will flash bright green in the sun. And the males are even more spectacular, with a ruby throat designed for attracting the jewel-loving ladies. I've seen that flash of red maybe one in every 50 times that I've seen a hummingbird. But it's worth the wait.

In the wild: Sit quietly by a patch of likely-seeming flowers. Keep an ear out for the buzz of the wings. In our experience, hummingbirds are creatures of habit. Once you find an area that hummingbirds come to, they're likely to come back -- several times throughout the day, and from day to day, as long as the flowers are producing nectar.

Photo credit: Jason Means
In your yard: We'd love to hear your tricks for attracting hummingbirds.  Out of the flowers I mentioned above, we love the cardinal flower and the native honeysuckle (it's less aggressive than the more-common Japanese honeysuckle, and has red flowers). Bee balm is also easy to grow, but spreads more -- it's in the mint family. The others are a little harder: jewelweed wants a lot of moisture, and I don't know anyone who's happy about planting trumpet creeper -- it just spreads way too aggressively.

I've heard mixed reviews about whether hummingbird feeders are a good idea. The problem is that if you have one, you need to wash it out every few days. Otherwise, it can ferment, which is bad for the hummers. We've opted to let the plants do the work for us instead.

Do you have favorite way of attracting hummingbirds, or a spot where you see them? Have you seen one yet this spring? We'd love to hear about it.


Awne said...

We have a hummingbird that has been enjoying our butterfly bush in the late afternoon in Cleveland Park. It seems late in the season for him to be here, but we are enjoying his visits.

Anonymous said...

This is the first year that a hummingbird has come to my feeder. He or she is mostly gray, with some black markings and white on the undersides of the wings. Is this a female, or is it a different species of humming bird?
Pam, Takoma DC

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

Awne - It's definitely not too late in the season -- we're seeing them every day on our cardinal flower. (In fact, one just stopped by while I'm writing this!)

Pam - congrats on the feeder! It's likely that you're seeing a green hummingbird but the light isn't catching on the feathers. If you look at the picture on the left above, it's a ruby throated hummingbird and looks grey. Only if it catches the light just right will it flash that brilliant green.

The main difference between the males and females is the ruby throat patch -- only males have it. But I find it even harder to catch that than the green-ness of the feathers.

Anonymous said...

The is great! I am so glad he isn't here too late. We have really been enjoying him Elizabeth!


Anonymous said...

I purchased three bee balm plants that were barely 3 feet tall. Upon returning from the nursery, I immediately began digging holes for each. In about an hour I was finished. My family went for a hike in Rock Creek Park and returned to find a single hummingbird sipping nectar from the newly planted flowers.

fiber optics montreal said...

My mom has this obsession in watching and feeding hummingbirds that we made a garden full of beebalm , canada lily , cardinal flower, trumpet honeysuckle and red columbine . The garden can be overlooked from the attic .When spring is almost there , she puts surveillance camera to record the hummingbirds happily getting nectars.

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

Wow! That's some pretty immediate gratification to have the hummingbirds find your plants in one afternoon. Very cool! I still get a thrill every time I see one.

expert wordpress said...

I haven't see a real hummingbird but wished to see the smallest bird in the world. Oh my ! I only had books and internet as my resources.

Anonymous said...

We live in Chevy Chase near Western and 31st and have a feeder. We have two that visit several times a day. One is a male with the red throat. There he is now! So cool!

Anonymous said...

We live in Brookland (CUA). We had Ruby throat and green ones with black and white stripes on the tail end coming frequently. I don't know if they all are gone. I haven't seen them for the past couple of days. This year we had little fat hummer who thought the whole feeder is hers and she did her best to keep all at bay by sitting on a small branch I kept for them to sit on after feeding. :D cant wait to see them again

Elizabeth Hargrave said...

Yes, they can definitely be territorial! We often see one chasing another out of our yard.

Anonymous said...

Wow! my son saw one yesterday at our feeder. I saw a green one with black and white stripes at the end of the tail around 10:30 am this morning. So happy, they are still around. I just put some fresh nectar in the feeder in case if she returns.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I saw my first Hummer for 2014. I have been waiting for them since the beginning of March. He or she was shimmery green with black chin, very skinny, maybe due to the long intense flight. I had my feeder well and ready since March and I became so tired of wasting the nectar I emptied and washed the feeder and just hung it in the same spot. Was so sorry there was no nectar when my hummer came by. Within about 4 seconds I filled my feeder and hung it back. Hopefully my hummer will be here to drink tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

My hummers have gone back home. The last one I saw was October 6th. Honey bees raiding their food from the feeder

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