By Marta K. Nelson | June 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 1996

There are over 300 different kinds of hummingbirds. Most live in Central or South America, but about 17 kinds live in North America.

In Missouri, the most common hummingbird is the ruby-throated, although you may see others when they come through Missouri on north and south migrations.

The ruby-throated hummingbird is just under 4-inches long and weighs 3 grams, or slightly more than a dime. You could mail nine hummingbirds for the price of a single first-class stamp.

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds have special feathers on their throat, called a gorget (gore-jet). The gorget looks black in the shade, but when the sun shines on it, it turns a brilliant ruby red. It is used to impress and attract females. Both males and females have bright green backs and white breasts. Hummingbirds build a walnut-sized nest using soft plant fibers, moss and lichens (like-ins), all held together with spider web. Using spider web allows the nest to stretch, so it grows right along with the growing babies. A female hummingbird usually lays only two eggs, mostly because that's all there's room for in the tiny nest. Also, she would have a difficult time feeding more than two babies.

The eggs are about the size of the eraser on the end of a pencil, and newly hatched babies are about the size of a pea. They grow so quickly that they are ready to leave the nest when only 3 or 4 weeks old.

Hummingbirds have really long beaks and tongues. In fact, their tongues are twice as long as their beak. They use their tongues to reach deep into flowers to soak up the sweet liquid, called nectar. On an average day, a hummingbird will visit about 1,500 flowers. They will also eat tiny insects for protein. triangle

Make this simple hummingbird feeder

(Adult supervision may be necessary for some steps )

Inviting hummingbirds to your home is as simple as hanging a feeder. Put them where you can see them easily, but out of the sun and wind. Since hummingbirds spend a lot of their time perching, having shrubs, trees or flowers close by also will encourage them to visit your feeder. It helps to have more than one feeder, since one male will chase away all other hummingbirds from a single feeder, but he can't defend two or three at a time.

You will need:

  • Small glass jar with a screw-on cap (baby food jars work well)
  • Hammer and a 10 penny nail or an electric drill with 1/8"bit
  • Bright red and yellow enamel paint, a brush, or a paint pen (these can be found in craft stores or the toy section of department stores near the plastic model supplies)
  • Red felt or craft foam
  • Scissors
  • Heavy string

Clean and dry the jar and lid, make an 1/8" hole in the lid using the hammer and nail, or drill. (Dull the sharp points around the hole by hammering them down from the other side. You may need to repeat the process to achieve the proper size hole) Paint the lid red. It may need a few coats to get a bright red color. Let it dry well between the coats. It works well to paint a small yellow flower around the nail hole. An alternate design is to make a series of these holes painting the yellow flower shapes around each one. You may also want to decorate your feeder by painting flowers on the side of the jar in red and yellow.

Trace the patterns for the flower shapes from this page, or draw your own. Be sure to use the actual size of the jar top for the center hole of the flower (just turn the jar upside down without the lid and trace around it). Draw your pattern on the craft foam or felt and carefully cut it out with your scissors (craft foam is sold at most craft stores. It is easy to cut, water resistant and holds up well).

Assemble your feeder by first tying a length of string around the neck of the jar tightly. Then put the flower shape on the neck of the jar, fill it almost full with the hummingbird nectar (recipe follows), and screw on the painted jar lid tightly. Now you are ready to hang up your very own hummingbird feeder or feeders.

Caring for your feeder

It is absolutely vital that feeders are kept filled and clean. You should wash and refill them every other day, especially in warm weather. Until you have several hummingbirds visiting your feeder, it is not necessary to fill your feeder to the top. Use smaller amounts to begin with.

When to use your feeder

Hummingbirds generally begin arriving in mid-April, so that's a good time to have your feeders up and ready. Leaving your feeder up until the end of October will help birds that live north of us get a quick high-energy snack to help them along the way. It's not true that leaving your feeder up will tempt the hummingbirds to stay too long. Migration is triggered by the changing day length, not the availability of food.

Hummingbird Nectar recipe

(adults-help with the stove)

You will need:

  • One cup sugar*
  • Four cups water
  • A medium sized saucepan
  • Container for storage
  • Never use honey. Honey spoils easily, and can make the hummingbirds sick.

Put the water in the saucepan, and cook it on the stove until it boils. Add the sugar, and stir the mixture until it boils again. Boiling helps keep the mixture fresh longer. Make sure the mixture is cool before using it in your feeder. Store what's left in the refrigerator.

It is not necessary to add red food coloring, as long as some part of the feeder itself is red. Some people wonder if all that sugar can be good for the birds. Actually, this recipe is similar to the nectar naturally found in flowers.

Fun Hummer Facts

  • The Hummingbird Book by Donald and Lillian Stokes (Little, Brown and Co. 1989) says hummingbirds beat their wings about 78 times per second. During a display dive, their wings can beat up to 200 times per second.
  • They take about 250 breaths per minute.
  • Their hearts beat about 1,260 times per minute.
  • They have 1,500 feathers.
  • They consume half their body weight in food every day. That would be like an average kid eating about 40 to 50 pounds of food a day.
  • During migration, they must fly 500 miles nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico to reach their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. To make the trip, they must eat enough so they weigh 1 1/2 times their usual weight.
  • They can fly at speeds of 60 miles per hour and can fly forwards, backwards, up, down, sideways and even upside down briefly, but they can't walk.


This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer