The Complete Guide to North American Hummingbirds

The Complete Guide to North American Hummingbirds

The diminutive hummingbird is found all over the world, but in North America, they enjoy a healthy and thriving population in the southern United States. The most popular species of hummingbird in the United States is the ruby-throated hummingbird, North America’s only breeding hummingbird. Tiny and brilliant, these birds can be spotted flitting from one flower to another, soaking up nectar while gracing the neighborhood with its sweet song. 

Migration Patterns of North American Hummingbirds

Migration Patterns of North American Hummingbirds

One of the main characteristics of hummingbirds in North America is their migratory patterns. In early fall, these small birds make the long journey to the warmer climes of South and Central America, only returning to the state in early to mid-spring. Hummingbirds fly low the entire trip, keeping their eyes open for nectar-filled flowers.

They fly up to 23 miles per day, flapping their wings up to 80 times per second, their hearts beating 1,280 times per minute. In order to keep up with this intense level of energy, the hummingbird must need either constant food or fat stores to make the trip.

Prior to starting the migration, they typically gain up to 40 percent of their body weight. They fly alone, traveling the same path that they have earlier in life. Young hummingbirds fly alone without their parents.  

The hummingbird is a strong flyer, often crossing the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight. During the spring migration, they typically use tail winds to their advantage, flying in the same direction of the wind in order to conserve energy. Strong northward winds from the Gulf of Mexico make the final leg of the trip difficult as they are often flying against the wind and struggling with exhaustion and starvation.

They do not eat during their last flight from the southern United States into Mexico and Central and South America.

During the fall migration, starting in late August and early September, the hummingbirds set out again, heading south. They refuel in the early morning hours, and you will often see them flitting around from flower to flower soaking up as much nectar as possible.

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They then take flight in the early afternoon, stopping again in the early evening to refuel again. In South Florida, Texas and Louisiana, you can spot hummingbirds congregating in border towns, preparing for the long haul over the Gulf. They also can be seen heading west, making the overland journey to Mexico. 

After spending the winter in the south, they return to their homes in North America to mate. Around the end of April and beginning of May, a trip to your backyard may reveal a treat. The hummingbirds have indeed returned from their winter break, and will soon begin to fill your outdoor space with flashes of color and the song of new chicks. 

Mating Patterns of Hummingbirds

Mating Patterns of Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds have their own mating patterns that they have perfected over generations. Their nesting and mating season start in early spring, so this is an excellent time to see them in backyards and in city parks.

Male and female hummingbirds make the trek north separately, with the males typically arriving one to two weeks before the females. The males stake out the best territory for mating, choosing the breeding grounds that have the best nectar-producing flowers and the best protection from predators. 

The arrival of the female hummingbird marks the beginning of a species-preservation dance routine. The male will engage in showy flight in view of the females, looping and zig-zagging up to 150 feet in the air. Then, in dramatic fashion, they make a deep dive, swooping up just inches from the ground. Other males sing, flap their wings and hum loudly.

Female hummingbirds choose the male with the most food in his selected territory. Hummingbirds require large amounts of nectar—they eat their body weight in it—so they want to ensure there is enough nourishment to sustain themselves and the offspring. 

Mating is quick, lasting only a few seconds, and afterward the female hummingbird sets about building the nest. A few days later, she lays two eggs that are about the size of peas. The eggs hatch within two to three weeks. There won’t be, however, any help from the male hummingbird when it comes to raising the chicks. He typically leaves right after mating and goes on to mate with new female hummingbirds elsewhere. 

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The baby hummingbirds will remain in the nest for up to 25 days, at which point they leave to find food on their own, continuing the cycle. 

Spotting Hummingbirds

Spotting Hummingbirds

You will likely hear hummingbirds before you see them. The sound generated by their rapidly flapping wings sounds like that of a bee, so if you hear it, keep your eyes peeled for the hummingbird. They can hover in mid-air, allowing them to quickly suck up nectar from flowers. 

Hummingbirds measure between 3-5 inches in length, with the smallest in the species measuring just two inches long. Most species weigh less than one pound, with the largest weighing about 0.85 ounces. Hummingbirds often eat almost their entire body weight in food, and they can go into a state similar to hibernation to preserve their energy. When food supply is low, they simply slow down their rate of metabolism and drop their body temperature. 

Even though they have unusually high metabolic rates, they have a long lifespan, as compared to other birds. While many die within the first weeks of life between the time that they hatch and the time they leave the nest, the ones that do survive can live up to a decade or longer. This is impressive considering the arduous journey they make each year during the fall and spring migration season. In North America, the average lifespan, however, is closer to 3-5 years. 

The hummingbird typically pollinates plants that produce brightly colored flowers in reds, oranges and yellows. One of the evolutionary advantages that the hummingbird enjoys is the ability to see ultra-violet colors. This means they are able to see colored flowers from long distances, something their nectar-stealing insect counterparts cannot. 

How to Attract Hummingbirds to Your Yard

How to Attract Hummingbirds to Your Yard

If you are intrigued by hummingbirds, you may wonder how to attract them to your yard. In southern states, you are most like to see them between late April and mid-August. In the summer, the hummingbird is consuming mass amounts of nectar to prepare for the upcoming fall migration.

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If you provide them with the sustenance they need, they will reward you with their beautiful presence. Hummingbirds have a strong sense of sight, and can spot bright colorful flowers from long distances away. The best way to attract hummingbirds to your yard is to fill it with color. 

Hummingbirds love red. Display as much red as possible in your yard. Red birdfeeders, red flowers, red ribbons and red flower pots will bring them straight into your space. Supply them with a water source like a bird feeder and keep it clean. Plant trees or shrubs to provide them with a place to perch. 

Setting up feeders with adequate distance between them will allow the male hummingbirds to claim them for their personal mating territory. Not only will you get to see these beautiful birds and hear their calls, you will bear witness to the mating dance that they have perfected over generations. 

Hummingbirds have a strong memory, and they will return to your yard year after year once it has been established as a reliable source of food, shelter and water. 

Making Your Own Nectar

Making Your Own Nectar

If you do not have an adequate supply of nectar-producing flowers in your yard, you can make your own nectar and leave it in the feeders to attract hummingbirds. Simply mix one part sugar to four parts water and fill the feeder with it. Do not add red food coloring to attract the birds. Your red feeders and ribbon is enough color to attract them. 

Spotting Hummingbirds

Spotting Hummingbirds (2)

You will likely hear hummingbirds before you see them. The sound generated by their rapidly flapping wings sounds like that of a bee, so if you hear it, keep your eyes peeled for the hummingbird. They can hover in mid-air, allowing them to quickly suck up nectar from flowers. 

Hummingbirds measure between 3-5 inches in length, with the smallest in the species measuring just two inches long. Most species weigh less than one pound, with the largest weighing about 0.85 ounces. Hummingbirds often eat almost their entire body weight in food, and they can go into a state similar to hibernation to preserve their energy. When food supply is low, they simply slow down their rate of metabolism and drop their body temperature. 

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Even though they have unusually high metabolic rates, hummingbirds  have a long lifespan, as compared to other birds. While many die within the first weeks of life between the time that they hatch and the time they leave the nest, the ones that do survive can live up to a decade or longer. This is impressive considering the arduous journey they make each year during the fall and spring migration season. In North America, the average lifespan, however, is closer to 3-5 years. 

The hummingbird typically pollinates plants that produce brightly colored flowers in reds, oranges and yellows. One of the evolutionary advantages that the hummingbird enjoys is the ability to see ultra-violet colors. This means they are able to see colored flowers from long distances, something their nectar-stealing insect counterparts cannot.  

Hummingbird Songs

Hummingbird Songs

Their song consists of tweets, chirps and whistles in a wide range of frequencies. The regular call of the hummingbird is soft and sweet, and you can often use their song to determine when they are mating, in danger or are warning other birds. Hummingbirds can be seriously territorial, so if they start to congregate, male birds will chatter and squeal in order to assert their dominance. 

Many of the hummingbirds songs are punctuated with sounds from their tail and wings. Several species of the bird produce a variety of sounds, from a metallic trill to rattles and high-pitched whines. 

Hummingbirds are small, yet mighty and these beautiful creatures will make their homes in your trees, shrubs and yards. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears tuned to enjoy all the beauty these birds have to offer. 

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