Spotting hummingbirds on the North Fork: Outdoors column

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds from Fish Guy Photos on Vimeo.

The sound of a buzzing, winged creature will send most people running for the sanctuary of the indoors. After being bit or stung from critters such as mosquitos, yellow jackets, and hornets, this reaction can be justified. However, this rushed decision to retreat inside might cause you to miss one of the North Fork’s speediest little birds — the hummingbird.

Although there are over 300 species of hummingbirds, they are only found in the New World (North and South America). Of those species, only one can be found nesting east of the Mississippi River, the ruby-throated hummingbird. With a maximum length of 3.5 inches and weighing only fractions of an ounce, spotting a hummingbird can be quite difficult. However, if you listen closely you might just hear them fly by. Beating their wings at a rate of 53 beats per second, they make a loud humming sound as they fly, hence the name hummingbird. This rapid pace allows them to reach speeds of 45 mph, especially during courtship activities and territorial disputes. The flying ability of a hummingbird is exceptional when compared to that of other birds. In addition to flying forward, they can hover in place, fly sideways, backwards and even upside down.

Not only does a hummingbird’s wings beat super-fast, so does their heart. At rest, a ruby-throated hummingbird’s heart beats at a rate of 225/minute and will speed-up to over 1200/minute when active (compared to a human’s resting heartbeat of 60-100/minute and 200/minute when active). In fact, a hummingbird has the fastest metabolism of any animal and to fuel it requires that they consume many calories every day.

Although hummingbirds do feed on small insects, their primary food source is the sugar-rich nectar produced by flowering plants. With a specialized beak, they fly flower to flower probing each one for this tasty meal. When found, the liquid meal is “licked-up” with a long tongue that is covered with small projections (lamellae). Finding enough food can require a hummingbird to visit hundreds of flowers every day.

A female hummingbird. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

The arrival and departure of ruby-throated hummingbirds to our area is timed with the bloom and passing of various flowers. I typically see the first hummers at my feeder by the last week of April, with the first signs of spring flowers. Surprisingly for such a small bird, they have traveled a great distance to get here, with most individuals spending the winter in Central America. Getting to and from their wintering grounds, many fly across the Gulf of Mexico and it is believed that this journey takes them between 18 and 20 hours to complete. By mid-September, as the last of the flowering plants bloom, I see fewer hummers and by October, I have no more visitors to my feeder.

There are many ways to attract ruby-throated hummingbirds to your yard. For starters, putting up a feeder is the fastest and easiest way to draw them onto your property. This feeder should be filled with a sugar water solution that contains 4 parts water and one part sugar. There is no need to add red dye to the mixture as it is not necessary to attract them and it has been shown to be toxic to the birds. This nectar should be changed often, especially during the heat of summer because it will spoil quickly and again be harmful to the birds. I mix together a half gallon of the solution that I then keep in the refrigerator. It is also very important to keep the feeder clean. Soaking the feeder once a month in a solution of ¼ cup of bleach to a gallon of water and then rinsing well will keep it clean and sanitary.

To attract even more hummers, try planting your yard with native flowering plants species. This process can take several years to fully grow in, but the end results will not only attract more hummingbirds, it will create an environment that will attract a plethora of other fascinating wildlife.

Hummingbirds are not shy and will quickly become accustomed to the daily activities that take place around your house. Hanging feeders or planting plants in strategic locations will allow for easy observations. Overtime, you will see more and more hummers returning to your hummingbird sanctuary.

For More Information on Planting Native Plants

Long Island Native Plant Intiative

Cornell Cooperative Extension