The hummingbird needs no introduction, since everyone at one time or other has been mesmerized by its bright color, tiny size and amazing aerial abilities.
There are several hundred species of hummingbirds in the world, but the only one found in the eastern United States is the Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). It is around 3 inches long and weighs only one half ounce (hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world). Both sexes have metallic green feathers and a long, straw-like bill. The male has a metallic red throat while the female has a white throat.
Most observers recognize the birds by their flying rather than their appearance. The wings move in a rotary motion that is so rapid (70 beats per second) they appear as a blur. They can hover motionless, and are the only birds that can fly backwards. They are most often seen darting from flower to flower seeking food.
Speaking of food, it takes on extra importance to hummingbirds because they have a very high metabolism to keep those wings moving. They must constantly take in food and will often eat half their body weight each day. Nectar from flowers is their main food, but studies show that they also eat whatever small insects are in the flower when the nectar is sucked up, supplying needed protein.
Continuing the species begins each spring when the male will put on a courtship before a potential mate consisting of a dazzling display of aerial swoops, dives, and loops. After courtship the male leaves the female to build a nest and raise the brood. She makes a bowl-shaped nest 1 1/2 inches across and about 1 inch deep. She will lay two white eggs, each about a half inch long, which hatch in two weeks. Three weeks after hatching, the young are ready to leave the nest.
The ruby-throated hummingbird normally spends the winter in the south from Louisiana to as far away as Panama. They can cover amazing distances for their size, able to fly 500 miles without stopping. Some fly across the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering area.
Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.