This resource was created by Joanne Vogel.
Weighing less than a penny, this acrobat of a bird beats its wings 50 to 100 times per second and can dive up to 50 mph! Using a figure-eight wing pattern, hummingbirds can fly backwards, upside down, and even hover like helicopters for refueling. The ruby-throated is the only species of hummingbird that breeds in the eastern United States and each fall, they make a monumental journey to their winter homes in Panama and Central America. Every spring the ruby-throated hummers fly back to where their lives began.
The male ruby-throated hummingbird has an iridescent red throat. The female has a shiny green back with a silver belly. These tiny birds get their name from the sound of their wings beating in constant motion. Both male and female hummingbird hearts beat about 1,200 times per minute and even faster when migrating. To support this high rate of metabolism, the tiny birds voraciously gorge on insects and nectar. By flying from flower to flower, the hummingbird drinks its body weight or more in nectar each day and often pollinates the plants on which it feeds. Some plants can only reproduce because of hummingbird pollination. Hummingbirds have incredible vision and are attracted to red and brightly-colored flowers. Recent research has shown that native red flowers have sweeter nectar. Hummers also favor long tubular-shaped flowers that can only be reached by pollinators with long bills or tongues. Some of our larger queen bumblebees, which are also active in early spring, have tongues long enough to reach the nectar in such flowers; others “cheat” by tearing holes in the nectar spurs to steal the sugary reward without performing pollination services. Hummingbirds don’t have to “cheat” because their tongues are so long.
To attract hummingbirds to your garden, a variety of nectar-rich flowers are essential. In designing a garden to entice these jeweled birds, it is important to cluster flowers together and to include plants of different heights. They love flowering shrubs and trees to perch in between feedings. They also love to bathe in fine mist, so adding a hummingbird water feature is always welcome. Perhaps the most essential element of the garden is the inclusion of tubular-shaped flowers that bloom all season long.
Hummingbirds return to their summer homes in spring. In New Jersey, we start to see hummingbirds in April. The males return first to establish territories and the females follow them. They mate, and the female builds the nest; she is responsible for incubating two tiny white eggs the size of jellybeans. It is also the female that then raises the young birds. It takes a lot of nectar to have enough energy to raise a hummingbird family.
Hummingbirds stay in their summer breeding grounds until the fall. The males migrate south first, sometimes as early as July or August. But the females stay until September and sometimes into October before they make the 1,500 to 2,000-mile journey to their winter homes in Panama, Costa Rica, and other Central American countries.
To entice hummingbirds to your garden and to be successful in having them visit often, you must offer nectar-rich flowers that start blooming in April and have a succession of blooms through the entire growing season.
In this activity, learn how to create a home for hummingbirds in your own yard. Learn the ruby-throated hummingbird's favorite flowers and how you can plant nectar-rich flowers to entice hummers.