The ruby-throated hummingbird is a tiny bird with a long needlelike bill. It hovers and flies forward and backward with a humming sound. Males have metallic green upperparts; a red throat (gorget) that flashes ruby red in the light but otherwise may look black; underparts whitish with dull green flanks; and the tail black and deeply forked. The side of the head below the eye is black from the bill to the cheek. Females have metallic green upperparts; whitish underparts; the sides pale buff; and the tail is tricolored: green at the base, black in the middle, with the three outer tail feathers tipped with white. Immature birds are similar to females, though young males may develop red flecks on the throat by fall. Ruby-throated hummingbirds make a variety of “chips,” squeals, and twitters.
Similar species: Although a few western hummingbirds are occasionally seen in Missouri, the ruby-throat is by far the most common in our state and throughout the entire eastern United States. Most vagrant hummingbirds from the western United States are detected in Missouri in mid- to late fall, after most ruby-throated hummingbirds have migrated south. These western species may stay into the winter, and they have been known to survive at nectar feeders heated by floodlights.
The rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is a casual migrant most frequently observed in the western half of Missouri July through November. The male has rufous upperparts (sometimes flecked with green), a greenish head, and black tips on the tail feathers; the underparts are white with rufous sides and undertail coverts. The male's throat flashes orange-red in the light but otherwise looks black. The female and immatures are metallic green above, with the throat spotted with brownish and orange-red flecks; the tail is rufous at the base with the outer three tail feathers tipped with white.
A few other western hummingbird species may sometimes migrate through Missouri. Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) is quite similar to the ruby-throat except for the male's magenta-pink (not ruby-red) face and throat. Though it mainly lives in western North America, it has been seen in Missouri.
The Mexican violetear, a tropical species that is all emerald green, with purple on the sides of the head, has been seen in Missouri at least once.
If you see an unusual-looking hummingbird at your feeder, make sure you inform other birders.
Finally, it might seem odd, but many people mistake clearwing moths for hummingbirds. These and other sphinx moths hover around flowers, drinking nectar, usually at dusk, but often in broad daylight. The hummingbird clearwing is especially hummingbird-like.
Length: 3¾ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Habitat and Conservation
Although most people see them as they hover around nectar feeders and in parks and gardens, hummingbirds also nest in forests and forest edges, near streams, and in other wooded places. A hundred or more hummingbirds may be observed at a well-stocked complex of hummingbird feeders.
This species appears to be doing well throughout its range and is not in need of any special management. Some of the greatest threats may be from cats hunting near nectar feeders and from collisions with nearby windows.
To fuel their high metabolisms, hummingbirds require abundant calories, which they obtain from drinking sweet nectar from flowers, using their long tongues. Hummingbird bills and tongues are adapted for reaching into the long throats of tube-shaped flowers. Some favorite Missouri wildflowers are wild columbine, trumpet creeper (trumpet flower), cardinal flower, jewelweed (touch-me-not), royal catchfly, fire pink, wild bergamot, red buckeye, and native honeysuckles. Hummingbirds are especially attracted to red or orange flowers, which is why many artificial hummingbird feeders are colored bright red.
To fuel themselves, hummingbirds consume large volumes of nectar, two or three times their body weight, each day. If humans had the same, high metabolism of hummingbirds, we would have to consume about 155,000 calories each day. This helps explain why hummingbirds are so territorial: they must protect their food resources for themselves and their families.
Many people feed hummingbirds with artificial feeders, filled with a mixture of four parts water to one part white sugar. Boiling the solution will retard fermentation and keep the mixture fresher longer, especially if you are storing part of the mixture in the refrigerator for later use. There is no need to add red coloring to the nectar. Never use honey or artificial sweeteners, and keep the feeder clean and the artificial nectar fresh.
When hummingbirds arrive in early spring , they may eat sweet sap oozing from sapsucker-drilled holes and other injured places on trees. The hummers may also eat insects attracted to the oozing sap. They soon switch to eating nectar from many different kinds of flowers as well as from artificial nectar feeders.
During nesting, hummingbirds consume many insects. Insects are a rich source of protein, required by the growing young. The young hummers are fed regurgitated food pumped into their mouths by the adult female; insects are eventually fed whole to the young. Sometimes hummingbirds steal insects from spider webs. Males defend a patch of nectar-producing flowers that will supply the needs of the pair and their young.
Common migrant and summer resident.
This species begins arriving in early April; nesting starts in mid-May. Cup-shaped nests, built on tree branches, are constructed of spider webbing, lichen, and other plant material, and lined with plant down. A hummingbird pair may occasionally raise two broods in a season. In summer, you can see broods traveling and foraging with their parents.
In August we often see a peak in numbers as northern hummers have begun to migrate through. Our Missouri hummingbirds begin migrating in mid-August; most are gone by early October.
In chilly mornings or evenings in early spring and late fall, you might occasionally see a hummingbird that appears to be sleeping, or dead. This is torpor, which could be described as a short-term hibernation, or controlled hypothermia. Usually, warm-blooded animals, including birds, shiver to maintain their body temperature when the weather is cold. But shivering expends calories, and hummingbirds are tiny. Falling asleep for several hours, without eating, could cause a hummingbird to starve. So, to conserve energy, hummingbirds can go into torpor. Their metabolism slows. Their body temperature can drop nearly 50 degrees lower than their usual body temperature of about 103 F, their heart rate and breathing slows, and they may appear dead. But as the air around them warms, they wake up and resume normal activities.
Most ruby-throated hummingbirds overwinter in Central America, between southern Mexico and northern Panama, with most flying (amazingly) nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. Those that spend summers in the far northern part of the range, such as in Canada, may overwinter along the U.S. Gulf Coast, the southern tip of Florida, and portions of the southern Atlantic Coast, but they are a minority.
A hummingbird's lifespan is typically 3 to 5 years.
Whether they’re feeding daintily from a nectar feeder or from flowers in your garden, it’s hard to find a bird more delightful to watch. Even when these tiny territorial birds engage in aerial battles, they are simply amazing.
It's fun and satisfying to feed hummingbirds. There is no evidence that keeping nectar feeders up late into the fall delays the migration of hummingbirds.
Native-plant landscaping is a great way to feed hummers and other wildlife while also decorating your yard with hardy, Missouri-adapted plants. Although red and orange flowers are most attractive to hummingbirds, blue, purple, and white flowers are also visited. Wildflowers include bee balm, blazing star, blue sage, wild columbine, fire pink, foxglove, jewelweed, phlox, royal catchfly, and Solomon's seal. Woody plants include beautyberry, golden currant, gooseberry, yellow honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, hawthorns, Ohio buckeye, and red buckeye.
Hummingbirds are important pollinators for many species of plants that require just such a long-billed pollinator.
Because of their small size, hummingbirds can be attacked by many predators that eat insects, including spiders, praying mantises, dragonflies, robber flies, and frogs. In some cases, these predators may be successful. Although other birds have been known to catch hummingbirds for food, they are probably not a staple food of any bird species.
Eastern red columbine is a wildflower native to much of eastern North America, and its range almost matches the breeding territory of the ruby-throated hummingbird, its number-one pollinator. Its bloom time matches the hummingbird's northward migration, too.
Another plant whose flowers are favored by hummingbirds is trumpet creeper. Hummingbirds cross-pollinate the flowers as they forage. The range of trumpet creeper nearly matches that of the ruby-throated hummingbird.
The hummingbird family (Trochilidae) includes about 361 species, all native to the New World. Most live in the tropics. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only one that occurs regularly throughout the eastern United States.
Some of the closest relatives of the hummingbirds are the swifts (including the chimney swift) (family Apodidae); all are in the same order (Apodiformes). Hummingbirds and swifts share some unusual characteristics: their legs are small and only good for perching, and the feet are covered by bare skin and lack scales (most other birds have scales on their feet). Also, the wings are unusual: the humerus ("upper arm" bone) is short and stout, so what appears to be the "elbow," midway across the wings, is actually the wrist joint. In swifts, the wing movement is stiff, shallow, and fluttery, but in hummingbirds, having the wrist joint at approximately midwing enables the birds to move their wings in a figure-eight pattern, enabling them to hover.
Although hummingbirds do not occur in the Old World, there are two groups of Old World birds that look and behave very similar to hummingbirds: the sunbirds and honeyeaters. Like hummingbirds, they are most diverse in tropical regions.
- Sunbirds (about 150 species) live in Africa, the Middle East, south and southeast Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, and northern Asia.
- Honeyeaters (about 200 species) occur in Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, and some Pacific Islands.
Sunbirds and honeyeaters are unrelated to hummingbirds; they are true perching birds, in the passerine order. Sunbirds and honeyeaters typically have long, thin curved bills for sipping nectar and play a role in pollination; many have jewel-like colors. Some species can hover as they visit flowers, but not as well as hummingbirds, so they frequently sip from a perched position. Their similarity to hummingbirds is explained by convergent evolution: these groups of unrelated animals developed similar solutions to the same lifestyle, eating nectar from flowers. Sphinx moths, which also suck nectar from long-tubed flowers, also hover, have very long tongues, and somewhat resemble hummingbirds.