The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 15, 2009


Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Name: The Ruby-throated Hummingbird has the scientific name of Archilochus colubris where Archilochus is the name of a Greek poet, satirist and lampooner. This is one of the hummingbird genera that was named in honor of a classical artist. Colubris probably had its

(Photo by Joe Kosack/Pennsylvania Game Commission)

origins in “colibri” which is French and Spanish for hummingbird. Only the male has the red throat but both males and females produce the namesake humming sound with the super high rate of their wing beats – around 53 beats per second. Hummingbirds, along with Swifts, are members of the order Apodiformes where “apod” means “without feet.” This could refer to the look of the bird or it could be what our classical friend Archilochus would have called hyperbole. The feet and legs are small and weak but strong enough to enable perching – just not walking or hopping.

Where seen and heard: Elaine Bojanic of Clark’s Farm Road put her hummingbird feeder out in mid-April when she read on the website that there had already been sightings in Massachusetts. On May 1 she saw her first Ruby-throated for this season. It was a male, which is not surprising, since they arrive well ahead of the females to establish their breeding territories. They choose areas with a good supply of food which will attract females. In Elaine’s garden, in addition to the feeder, the deep pink cherry tree and the azaleas were in full bloom.

Distinguishing characteristics: The birds are most recognizable by their tiny size and their remarkable flight. They not only hover but fly in all directions including backwards and with precise control. Stopping on a dime would be the hallmark of a clumsy hummingbird. They can fly at very high speeds, up to 60 miles per hour, and stop in an instant. They are the tiniest of all birds and weigh less than one third of an ounce. Both male and female Ruby-throateds are vivid green on the upper parts and pale gray below. The ruby throat of the male can appear quite dark when the light is not right and brightly iridescent when it is. They have long slender bills and long tongues that can reach far beyond the end of the bill.

Nectar: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds take nectar from a variety of plant shapes and colors – not just the red ones and the tubular ones. I often see them in my garden late in the afternoon at the pale yellow flowers of a plant like a miniature foxglove. They get the nectar flow started by lapping and then capillary action pulls the nectar up the tiny grooves on the tongue and into the mouth – no sucking is involved.

Not by nectar alone: Hummingbirds, and certainly the Ruby-throated, are omnivores. We know them best for their nectar feeding but they also consume lots of insects and spiders. They have a practice called hawking where they perch and watch for flying insects and then dart out and get them. This can be extremely successful with insect swarms. They also glean leaves and tips of tree branches for tiny caterpillars. They take spiders right out of their webs and also eat spider eggs and spiderlings. They steal insects attracted to the sap weeping from holes made by sapsuckers. This is food the sapsucker was hoping to have along with the sap.

Routine: Ruby-throated, and other hummingbirds, develop daily feeding rounds in a practice known as ‘trap-lining’ which is a repeatable sequence of food source visitations. Flower patches, feeders and sapsucker holes can all be part of a trap-line.

Feeders: If you put out a hummingbird feeder there are a few things you should know. One is to make the sugar solution with about four parts of water to one part of regular sugar. This will be less viscous than a stronger solution and more able to flow in the hummingbird’s grooved tongue. There is no need to color the water. Another thing is to refresh the solution before it gets cloudy or ferments and turns the sugar to alcohol. Another is to place the feeder out of the reach of ever-vigilant and opportunistic cats.

Sources: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, David Allen Sibley; Dictionary of Birds of the United States, Joel Ellis Holloway and George Miksch Sutton; Cornell Lab of Ornithology at (search for ruby-throated).

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