Masters of Flight
What is the world’s tiniest warm-blooded animal? How much does it weigh? How much can it eat in one day? What is the longest non-stop journey it takes?
If you answered “hummingbirds” to the first question you’d be right. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only species of these tiny birds to live in Ontario, but there are over a dozen different “hummers” in the southwestern USA and Mexico!
They weigh less than a nickel (3.95 g), are about 9 cm long (the length of my longest finger), with a wingspan of 11 cm (two could fit in my outstretched hand). Those tiny wings beat 75 times a second, making the humming sound that gives the birds their name. They can hover in one place, fly backwards or upside down briefly, and reach speeds over 40 kilometers per hour!
Their hearts beat over four times per second, about 250 beats per minute. They breathe at the same rate. Their metabolism is 100 times faster than an elephant’s. Hummingbirds are tiny creatures but they have BIG appetites! They’ll eat from one and a half to three times their body weight every day, so must visit hundreds of flowers to drink enough nectar. They also drink sap from sapsucker holes and eat small insects.
To prepare for migration they’ll double their body weight. “Our” birds will migrate to Central America, anywhere from Panama to Mexico. They’ll head first to Florida, which takes about five days. Then they go non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico, flying 800 km over the open ocean in 18 to 24 hours! It takes them a few more days after that marathon to reach their wintering grounds.
They bulk up again in the spring for the return journey, arriving when their preferred flowers are in bloom. They are especially attracted to the colour red.
The female makes her nest on a small branch. It’s about the size of a walnut shell, and is made of spider web and leafy material including lichen. She lays two white eggs, each about the size of a coffee bean. Newly hatched hummers are fed small insects and spiders: nectar is added once they have grown. They can fly at 21 days, and may live for six or seven years.
The length of daylight triggers them to migrate, so keeping feeders out will not make them stay here longer. They’ll need to fatten up for their long migration. Keep your feeders up, clean and filled with ¼ sugar to 1 cup water, for at least two weeks after the local birds depart to help stragglers from the north on their journey. Enjoy their brilliant iridescent plumage for a few more days, until they return next spring.
Nancy Melcher is The Nature Nut. Send details of your sightings or questions about the natural world to: firstname.lastname@example.org