Thursday, May 6, 2010

LOOK FOR: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

North America is a summer home to 15 species of hummingbirds, but only one species -- the ruby throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris -- comes to Washington, DC. These tiny three-inch birds migrate 2,000 miles from Central America every spring to breed here. Have you ever seen one here? They're more common than you may think.

ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilocus colubris
Photo credit: Jason Means
Archilochus is named after a Greek warrior-poet, but hummingbirds don't have a lyrical song, just a little high-pitched chatter. Once you learn to recognize the buzz of their super-fast wings, though, it's a sure tip-off for spotting them. So much so that it's part of the "typical voice" recording for hummingbirds on All About Birds.

Those tiny wings are beating about 53 times a second. They give hummingbirds helicopter-like abilities -- they're one of the only birds that can hover or fly backwards. Which is pretty fun to see. They can also fly really fast -- which makes them hard to see.

Your best bet is to find flowers that hummingbirds like to feed on. In our yard, the sure winners every year are bee balm, cardinal flower, and native honeysuckle. Other flowers we've seen them on in the wild include jewelweed, trumpet creeper, and even common milkweed. Notice anything these flowers have in common? They're all trumpet-shaped, perfect for the hummer's long beak. And they've all got red or orange flowers.

ruby-throated hummingbird on cardinal flower
hummingbird on cardinal flower in our yard
But hummingbirds don't subsist on a pure sugar diet -- they'll eat small insects like ants, gnats, and mosquitoes. One more reason to love them!

The biggest treat is when the light catches a bird just right -- its feathers, which may have looked more or less gray a moment ago, will flash bright green in the sun. And the males are even more spectacular, with a ruby throat designed for attracting the jewel-loving ladies. I've seen that flash of red maybe one in every 50 times that I've seen a hummingbird. But it's worth the wait.

In the wild: Sit quietly by a patch of likely-seeming flowers. Keep an ear out for the buzz of the wings. In our experience, hummingbirds are creatures of habit. Once you find an area that hummingbirds come to, they're likely to come back -- several times throughout the day, and from day to day, as long as the flowers are producing nectar.

Photo credit: Jason Means
In your yard: We'd love to hear your tricks for attracting hummingbirds.  Out of the flowers I mentioned above, we love the cardinal flower and the native honeysuckle (it's less aggressive than the more-common Japanese honeysuckle, and has red flowers). Bee balm is also easy to grow, but spreads more -- it's in the mint family. The others are a little harder: jewelweed wants a lot of moisture, and I don't know anyone who's happy about planting trumpet creeper -- it just spreads way too aggressively.

I've heard mixed reviews about whether hummingbird feeders are a good idea. The problem is that if you have one, you need to wash it out every few days. Otherwise, it can ferment, which is bad for the hummers. We've opted to let the plants do the work for us instead.

Do you have favorite way of attracting hummingbirds, or a spot where you see them? Have you seen one yet this spring? We'd love to hear about it.