Ounce for ounce, ruby-throated hummingbirds are the fiercest creatures in Missouri. Sure, their itty-bitty bodies and their knack for zipping into view make them seem like a cross between a bumblebee and Tinker Bell. True, their wings do purr like an expensive sports car. And, yes, their shiny feathers sparkle in the sunlight as if they were coated with emeralds and rubies. Oh, all right, hummingbirds are adorable. But... watch what happens when two hummers arrive at the same feeder. Without fail, one of them will fly into a sputtering, squeaking, feather-ruffling rage, charge beak-first at the other hummer, and chase it away from the feeder. There’s a reason hummingbirds act like big bullies: Their lives depend on it.
Missouri’s smallest bird flaps its wings at blinding speeds — on average, about 50 times each second. This helps hummers fly forward, backward, up, down, and sideways. It lets them streak in at full speed and come to a dead stop in the blink of an eye. And it allows them to hover precisely in place, which helps when they’re trying to stick their beaks into the tiny target of a flower’s petals. But all that flapping comes at a cost.
Hummingbirds burn energy faster than any warm-blooded animal. To keep their wings revved up, they must eat half their weight in sugar every day. (You’d have to drink more than 450 cans of soda to keep up.) Hummingbirds risk death if they go eight hours without food, and in extreme cases have been known to starve in two hours. So, when a hummer finds a good source of sugar — such as a feeder or a field of flowers — it doesn’t like to share.
Hummingbirds don’t live in Missouri all year. When flowers disappear in the fall, the little birds buzz off to spend winter in Central America. Males leave first — often in early August — then females, and then the young born that year. People usually see more ruby-throats in late summer than at any other time. This is because hungry hummers linger longer at flowers and feeders to pack on fat for migration. Some hummingbirds double their weight before undertaking long flights.
It takes tons of work to raise a hummingbird family, and mama hummers do it without any help from dad. A mother hummingbird begins by building a cozy, cup-shaped nest. To make the nest soft and warm, she pads the inside with cattail and dandelion fluff. To anchor the nest to a branch and hold the whole thing together, she plucks silk from spider webs. To hide the nest from predators, she camouflages it with moss and lichens. Once the nest is finished, she lays two raisin-sized eggs inside.
When the babies hatch, they are blind, naked, and helpless. They can’t keep themselves warm, so mom spends most of her time sitting on them. Several times an hour, mom zips off to gather food. When she returns, she sticks her beak deep into the mouth of each baby and throws up nectar and insects for the babies to eat.
Hummingbirds don’t have much fat. If they did, they’d be too heavy to hover. But with little insulation, cold nights spell trouble. To survive, hummers go into torpor, a condition in which the bird’s body slows down to save energy. The hummer breathes just a few times a minute, and its temperature drops nearly 50 degrees. To you and me, the bird appears to be dead. In the morning, once the sun has warmed its tiny body, the hummer wakes up and zips off to refuel.
As the babies grow, they stretch out the sides of their nest. Young hummers are born knowing how to fly. They perch on the edge of the nest and practice fluttering their wings to make short takeoffs and landings. When the young hummers are a month old, mom kicks them out of the house, and they buzz off to become fierce, feisty, and fearless war birds.
Angie Daly Morfeld
Nichole LeClair Terrill