Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

May 3, 2021

New Neighbors at Your Backdoor: Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Almost everyone is attracted to ruby-throated hummingbirds. That metallic sheen and exotic appearance, their incredible in-flight acrobatics, and their small size sets them apart from all other North American birds. Homeowners who feed no other bird often put out a red-flowered hummingbird feeder to attract this bundle of energy that weighs not much more than a penny. Feeders are sometimes placed just outside a window so that these aggressive, bold little birds can be observed at arm’s length.

A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a twig of a plant. Green leaves are in the background.
Photo by Susan Killian.

Ruby-throats can maneuver like no other bird. Infinitely small helicopters literally and figuratively “on-speed,” they can go up, down, sideways, back up, hover, and change locations in a nanosecond. Ruby-throats can disappear in an instant: Don’t blink or you may miss them. Wingbeats are incredibly rapid at 40, 50 or higher beats per second, generating a humming sound and a blur of motion. Such high wingbeat frequencies enable the incredible in-flight maneuvers.

Nests are difficult to locate. They are small, about the size of half a black walnut shell, and constructed of bark shreds, soft grass, cattail fluff and spider webs. They are often lined with dandelion, thistle, and sometimes milkweed down. Nests may be camouflaged with lichens, making them almost undetectable. I once located a nest by following a female’s flight to its destination. The nest was on top of a white oak branch and covered with lichens that were similar to ones on the oak. The nest appeared to be only a small knot atop the branch.

Two white navy bean-sized eggs are laid. Newly hatched birds are so small that four could easily fit inside a teaspoon. The female alone feeds them mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, aphids, and other small insects to supply the needed protein not found in nectar. The male is derelict of all parenting duties. His sole contribution is mating with the female.

A very small hummingbird nest made with spiderweb silk, various hairs, and  pieces of lichen and bark. The nest has two very small eggs inside and is attached to a stem of a green plant.
Photo by Astrid Zamora.

Tubular shaped flowers of woodlands and gardens are their favorite source of nectar. Both yellow and spotted jewelweed—known as touch-me-nots—found in moist woods are foraged in late summer and early fall. During spring and summer, columbines and trumpet vines (Campsis radicans) are common attractants. Usual varieties of garden flowers such as petunias and clematis draw them. Adult ruby-throats also eat minute insects and small spiders. They have even been known to “steal” insects caught in a spider’s web. Ruby-throats use their long, hairy tongues to sweep up insects from the insides of flowers.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are easy to attract. If you love native wildflowers, plant Virginia bluebells and blue woodland phlox for early spring blooms. Later in the season, columbines, beardtongues (Penstemon spp.), both prairie and rough blazingstars, butterfly milkweed, wild bergamot and jewelweeds are ruby-throat’s favorites. If you have water habitat in your backyard or nearby environs, establish cardinal flower at the water’s edge.

The nearly foolproof way of inviting ruby-throats close-in and personal is to put up several hummingbird feeders. A USDA-NRCS publication gives the following recommendation if you use feeders:

A green and white hummingbird sipping nectar from a red tubular flower while hovering in mid-air.
A hummingbird sipping nectar from a cardinal flower. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten.

• Mix ¼ cup of regular cane sugar to 1 cup of water. If you mix more than needed to fill the feeders, refrigerate the remainder until used.

• Clean the feeder every 3 or 4 days, or more often in hot weather, to prevent rancidity and mold. Use a brush and clean the feeder thoroughly, but do not use harsh detergent.

• Do not add red coloration, honey or artificial sweetener to the feeding mixture as such ingredients may cause health problems.

• Locate feeders out of the reach of domestic cats.

Along with feeders, hang flower baskets just outside your windows, from under roof overhangs if possible. Pick flowering species that continue blooming through most of the summer on until the first frost, such as petunias.

An excellent resource for the homeowner for practical information about attracting ruby-throated hummingbirds is: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet Number 14, published December 1999 by USDA-NRCS. This resource gives detailed information about the food and habitat requirements not found elsewhere.

Robert J. Reber is an emeritus faculty member in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has been a lifelong student of many aspects of the Natural World, including archaeology. Bob has served as a managing editor and author for publications such as “The Illinois Steward” magazine and the “Illinois Master Naturalist Curriculum Guide.”

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