The Ruby Throated Hummingbird
The ruby throated hummingbird ia a tiny bird with big performance, capable of astonishing feats of flight and endurance.
The ruby throated hummingbird has adapted to an energetic existence. In its busy, buzzing quest for nectar, it may visit as many as 2,000 flowers in a day.
Hovering or accelerating vertically like a nectar-fueled rocket, the ruby throat is a master of the air, aided by some unique feathers. Its narrow, stiff wings can rotate in their sockets. Powered by large muscles, they move rapidly in a figure eight, not up and down. The hummingbird's tongue can extend well beyond the end of the bill. Its special scale-like feathers act like a prism to break up light rays and reflect a particular color. The hummingbird has very small and weak legs and feet: they are used only for perching. Its claws are sharp and are sometimes used in territorial fighting. The hummingbird adjusts the angle and spread of its tail to aid agility. The tail barely extends beyond the folded wing when the hummingbird is resting.
The ruby throat is widespread across eastern North America, where it breeds. The ruby throat pauses in the U.S. on migration to refuel with nectar wherever it finds suitable flowers. Tropical forests in Mexico and Central America are its favorite winter habitat.
The hummingbird's ability to fly backward and hover in still air makes it unique among birds. It maintains control even when it rolls upside down in flight, which it does when fighting a rival. The ruby throat’s migration, a trip of up to 3,360 miles, is a marvel of nature. Fueled only by fat reserves, this hummingbird flies 480 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. Those that survive will have spent some 20 hours over water and made 4 million wing beats before their next sip of life-saving nectar.
The ruby throat feeds mainly on nectar, the sweet fluid of flowers that attracts pollinating insects and birds. Hovering above a bloom, the bird dips its bill into the flower’s throat and extends its tongue to sip. Because it burns energy so quickly, the bird must feed every few minutes during the day. It can survive the night only by allowing its body temperature to drop and its heartbeat to slow down. The next morning, it wakes with the sun, warms up, then flies off for another busy day feeding.
A male ruby throat attracts a female by performing a display flight over his territory. After mating, the male goes to find another partner and plays no further part in family life. The female alone builds the nest and incubates two minuscule eggs. The female feeds her chicks small insects and regurgitated nectar by hovering over them and delicately putting her bill into theirs.
In the 19th century, thousands of hummingbirds were killed for European fashion trade and decorative stuffed specimens. Today, caged bird trade is in decline, but several species are still experiencing a slump in number. The reason is unclear, but may be connected with destruction of the birds’ tropical winter habitats.