The Tiny Hummingbird: A Flying Marvel

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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One of the most entertaining birds that visit us every year are hummingbirds. We have two prevalent species here in the mountains which are the Broadtail and the Rufus species. We watch them throughout the summer by putting feeding stations outdoors where we can see them from a window. They are entertaining and highly interesting all at the same time. Such a small bird is a marvel of engineering and flying ability. We have noted that one male Rufus hummingbird which migrates back each year seems to be more territorially dominant so we put a single station out front that he likes to guard and chase the rest of the hummingbirds away from. All summer long he will diligently perch on the top of the bar holding the feeder and chase the other birds away while the remaining 25-50 hummingbirds are slurping up the nectar in the back of the house undisturbed. We feed them a sugar nectar which consists of a mix of one cup of cane sugar to four cups of water which is a ratio that seems to satisfy the tiny birds. It is a little lighter than some recommendations but they seem to thrive off it. We sometimes go through a gallon per day at peak summer feeding times. Some people put red food coloring in the water but we have found that unnecessary and do not believe it is good for them. Our feeders have plenty of red on them as depicted in the photo and that seems enough red to attract them and seems to be their preferred color.

Our Special Handicapped Female Hummingbird

Having them around much of the summer we were curious about their habits and unique flying ability especially because one female broadtail had flown into the window trying to avoid a more aggressive one chasing her. It knocked her out and she appeared to have been slightly injured. Fortunately we saw it happen and went out and picked her up, gave her some gentle massage and managed to revive her. She survived but has a distinct way of perching on the feeder now and sometimes just sits there in a trance-like state. That was three years ago and she has returned to the same precise spot at the feeder each year. For the most part it is hard to tell one from the other but with this female we can pick her out of a group of similar birds. We stop feeding them on Labor Day each year so they will not hang around too long and be caught in winter weather.

Unique Hummingbird Characteristics

In researching hummingbirds we found that they can fly forwards, backward, up, down and hover by making their wings go in a figure eight pattern plus they can reach speeds of 30 MPH and can dive at speeds of up to 60 MPH. When they feed on a flower they have the ability to remember where it is located and know just how long before it produces nectar again. They can migrate hundreds of miles and remember each feeding station they have previously visited on their migration route. They return each year to the exact location where they fed last year. Often we will see them hovering outside the window where the feeder was the prior year when they return. We quickly get the feeders out as we know they have traveled a great distance and are in need of nourishment.

Depending on which article you read they live from 3 to 5-12 years. Each article seems to vary as to their life expectancy. The female builds a nest high in trees. On occasion we have found a nest that has blown out of a tree and the nest is tiny and can be held in the palm of your hand. The male takes no responsibility in raising the young and often finds another female when the brood hatches from eggs that are a half inch in size or less. The hummingbird is the smallest of birds and its heart beats about 1,260 beats per minute and about 250 beats a minute while at rest. Their body temperature is about 107 degrees Fahrenheit and they can weigh up to 20 grams. Anyone who has ever held one in their hand knows just how light they are. Their wings beat up to 70 times per second and can beat up to 200 times a second when diving. Their legs are too weak to walk so they spend most of their life perching. They make a trilling sound and their wings beat so fast that they also make a humming sound, hence their name hummingbird. They actually lap the nectar up with their tongues.

Placing Feeders to Observe Hummingbirds

Taking the time to observe this tiny bird along with their traits makes us realize just how truly remarkable and unique they are. We have placed their feeders where we can continually observe them throughout the day. The tiniest of birds are worth observing and studying as they are so very unique. Their feathers are iridescent and their antics are often amusing. We have seen all the holes of the feeder occupied by birds with several others just hovering until a hole opens up and they quickly zoom in to take their position on the feeder.

Living in an area where bull elk or bear can weigh up to several hundred pounds, paying special attention to a tiny bird that only weighs a few grams can seem odd as the larger animals attract your attention due to their size. They are the smallest of birds and can migrate hundreds of miles and remember each and every stop they have been to in the past. If we humans had that capacity we wouldn’t need GPS units in our vehicles to say ’take the next exit’. We enjoy watching these tiny birds as much as we enjoy watching elk, deer and the occasional bear or mountain lion because they are so different and unique from other species of birds.

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