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May 18, 2018

When wildflowers and trees bloom in the Spring, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) returns to Kentucky to nest.

Its distant wintering grounds, hundreds of miles south, are mostly open, or dry tropical scrub, rather than rain forests. The winter is spent in South Florida, Mexico and Central America, as far south as Panama.

The hummingbirds that winter in Mexico or Central America, make the 500-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico non-stop.

The tiny birds are a wonder of nature.

They seem to defy gravity, hovering in mid-air, then zipping away in the blink of an eye.

High-velocity wingbeats, as much as 80 times per second, and skeletal and flight muscle adaptations, make their distinctive flight pattern possible.

Muscles are 25 to 30 percent of their body weight, and they have long, blade-like wings that connect to the body only from the shoulder joint. Their wings, unique among birds, can rotate almost 180 degrees, enabling the bird to fly forward and backward and to hover in mid-air, similar to an insect.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds feed on nectar and insects. They prefer tubular flowers like the trumpet vine, but will feed on a wide variety of blooming flowers and trees. They feed while hovering, extending their bill and long tongue deep into the center of the flower. (Photo by Terry Sohl)Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds feed on nectar and insects. They prefer tubular flowers like the trumpet vine, but will feed on a wide variety of blooming flowers and trees. They feed while hovering, extending their bill and long tongue deep into the center of the flower. (Photo by Terry Sohl)

Range and Distribution

The nesting range of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird extends from Saskatchewan, Canada and North Dakota, south to east Texas, east to northern Florida, and northward up the Atlantic Coast to the Canadian Maritimes.

Found statewide in Kentucky during the summer months, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is most abundant in the Purchase Region, Bluegrass and Cumberland Plateau.

More than a dozen species of hummingbirds are found in the western U.S., but the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is only species east of the Great Plains.

Size and Coloration

The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is incredibly small and light, and coloration varies between the sexes.

The tiny birds are about three inches tall, with a four-inch wingspan, and their weight can range from 0.071 to 0.212 ounces, with females weighing slightly more.

Adults are metallic green above and grayish white below, with near-black wings. Their bill, up to 0.79 inches long, is straight, and slender.

As with all hummingbirds, the toes and feet are very small. The tiny bird shuffles if it wants to move along a branch, though it can scratch its head and neck with its feet.

The adult male has a throat patch of iridescent ruby red bordered with black. The red iridescence is highly directional and appears dull black from many angles. The male has a forked black tail with a faint violet sheen.

The female has a notched tail, with outer feathers banded in green, black, and white. Her throat is white and may be lightly marked with dusky streaks.

The song of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is a mouse-like, twittering squeak.

When it hovers, its wingbeats resemble the sound of a low buzz, whirr or hum.


Usually well surrounded by leafy cover, the hummingbird nest is built by the female, and is a cup of grasses, plant fibers, and spider webs, so that it can expand as the young grow. The outside is camouflaged with lichens and dead leaves. Photo by Matthew Studebaker

 

Food Habits

Usually well surrounded by leafy cover, the hummingbird nest is built by the female, and is a cup of grasses, plant fibers, and spider webs, so that it can expand as the young grow. The outside is camouflaged with lichens and dead leaves. Photo by Matthew StudebakerUsually well surrounded by leafy cover, the hummingbird nest is built by the female, and is a cup of grasses, plant fibers, and spider webs, so that it can expand as the young grow. The outside is camouflaged with lichens and dead leaves. Photo by Matthew StudebakerRuby-Throated Hummingbirds feed on nectar and insects.

They favor tubular flowers like the trumpet vine but will feed on a wide variety of blooming flowers and trees. They feed while hovering, extending their bill and long tongue deep into the center of the flower.

To catch small insects, they fly out and intercept them in midair, or hover to pluck a morsel from the leaves or stems of foliage.

Sometimes they eat spiders (or trapped insects) from spider webs.

They can be attracted to feeders in rural backyards, sipping sugar-water mixtures from specialized hummingbird feeders. At feeders, they often perch while inserting their long bill into the feeder head that resembles a flower.

Nesting and Reproduction

Males arrive first, as early as late April, and establish territories.

When females arrive, courting, then breeding commences.

In courtship display, the male flies back and forth in front of the female in a wide U-shaped arc, making a whirring sound, by fluttering its tail feathers, on each dive. He will also buzz back and forth, in short passes, in front of the perched female.

After nests are built, egg laying starts, usually in late May or June.

The nest site is in a tree or large shrub, usually 10 to 20 feet above the ground, placed on a horizontal branch.

Usually well surrounded by a leafy cover, the nest is built by the female, and is a cup of grasses, plant fibers, and spider webs so that it can expand as the young grow. The outside is camouflaged with lichens and dead leaves.

The female lays one to three white eggs and incubates them for 11 to 16 days.

She feeds the young and they can fly in about 22 days. Pairs usually have about one to two broods per year.

In Kentucky, hummingbirds nests in a variety of habitat types.

“They usually nest in relatively undisturbed areas,” wrote author Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr., in The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas. But they also use “fairly mature to mature forests, woodland borders, forested riparian corridors, orchards, rural yards, and suburban parks.”

For bird watchers and nature lovers, the arrival of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is anticipated as spring turns into summer.

The tiny birds are a reminder of the amazing diversity of native wildlife we have here in Kentucky, and how lucky we are to have this migratory species in our midst, even if it’s just for the warm weather months of the year.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

 

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