by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Outside on a warm day, something buzzes past in a blur. A large bumblebee or sphinx moth, perhaps? How about a hummingbird?
With about 340 hummingbird species in the Western Hemisphere, only one – the ruby-throated hummingbird – is found in the eastern United States. And these glittering jewels of the avian world have arrived in New Jersey!
Ruby-throated hummingbirds spend their winter in Mexico and Central America and fly north every spring to breed. Their arrival in the Garden State coincides with the emergence of insects and blooming forest shrubs. Adults head south before Labor Day, and the newly-hatched juveniles leave by mid-September.
It takes sharp eyes to spot this tiniest of birds, but it’s incredibly easy to attract them to your backyard with brightly-colored flowers and nectar feeders.
Watching hummingbirds in action is a fascinating summer pastime. Hummingbirds are bold around humans and never fail to entertain with their acrobatic hovering and diving – and their comically territorial behavior, known as “hummingbird wars.”
Adult hummingbirds weigh little more than a nickel.
Their wings beat around 53 times per second, and they can hover and fly backwards. They get their name from the “humming” sound of their wings. They don’t sing melodious songs like a lot of our summer birds, but instead make distinctive chattering peeps.
Males are emerald green above, grayish-white below, with an iridescent patch on their throat that can appear jet black or gleaming ruby red. Females and juveniles don’t have red throats and their green coloring is not as bright.
Hummingbirds have thin, slender bills and are omnivorous. For protein, they “flycatch” mosquitoes and midges in mid-air, or pick spiders and caterpillars off leaves. Their heart rate goes from 4 beats per second at rest, to 20 beats per second while hovering!
To fuel all that flying, they sip sugary nectar from flowers using their long, hollow tongues that work like soda straws. They are critical pollinators for native plants with tubular flowers, and their high metabolism requires many times their body weight in nectar each day.
To attract hummingbirds, plant tubular flowers like trumpet vine, bee balm, lobelia, salvia, butterfly weed, petunia, hibiscus, mandevilla, morning glory and native coral honeysuckle.
Set up a feeder outside your window for maximum viewing pleasure. Many good feeders are available; most are colored red to grab the hummingbirds’ attention, and some have little perches to entice visitors to stay longer.
Mixing hummingbird food is simple. Add a quarter-cup of table sugar to one cup of water … but leave out the food coloring because it could be harmful to the birds. Hang the feeder in mid-day and afternoon shade. Clean the feeder and change the sugar water often, because it can ferment in summer heat.
If you’re really into hummingbird watching, share your observations with others. Each year, thousands of hummingbird fans track migrations, which helps researchers determine whether patterns are shifting due to climate change or other factors.
Project FeederWatch, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies of Canada, is one great site where you can report your spring hummingbird sightings – www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/. Another is www.hummingbirds.net, a website with constantly-updating maps showing the annual hummingbird migration.
For more information on identifying, observing and feeding hummingbirds, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/ruby-throated_hummingbird/id.
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