Endurance athlete, feather-weight fighter, acrobat: all describe the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, smallest member of eastern North America’s avifauna and the only hummer to breed in western Pennsylvania. If you could hold one of these tiny birds to your ear, you’d hear a heart beating 250 times a minute—at rest.
That rate rockets to some 1,200 beats a minute in flight, so fast that ruby-throats streak along at 30 to 60 miles an hour as they wing their way back to us each spring from wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return in late April, their arrival timed to the availability of nectar from flowers, supplemented by backyard sugar water feeders. Hummingbirds are attracted to red, but don’t alter any nectar you make. Those speedy metabolisms can be disrupted by artificial coloring. A cup of household sugar boiled in four cups of water, then cooled, will make these tiny creatures happy enough to grace your yard all season.
Often, the males are the first to be seen at flowers and feeders. Iridescent emerald feathers across their backs and wings contrast with white chests offset on the males by spectacular red gorgets at their throats. These red feathers flash prismatically when males confront rivals, whether hummingbird or human. Females lack the red throats, but they’re just as apt to give quick chase to defend prime feeding spots. Most of this squabbling only results in wee squeaks and buzzing wings zipping skyward. A ruby-throat’s needle-like bill is a probe, not a weapon, and conceals a grooved tongue twice its length that can reach far into the nectar well of a waiting blossom.
Besides the tasty treats our gardens provide, Pennsylvania’s wooded hillsides and river valleys offer the reason the birds are with us: good breeding habitat. After the briefest of courtships, female hummers build golf ball-sized nests of spider silk, lichen and down. Typically they lay and incubate two eggs, each the size of a pinky fingernail. A few weeks later, they hatch, and the babies grow to full size within a month, all the while sipping nectar meals from busy mothers who ferry between flower, feeder and nest.
Ruby-throats are the acrobats of the bird world, their lithe bodies weighing less than 4 grams, about the heft of a penny. Unique among birds, hummers can fly backwards and hover thanks to helicopter-like wings that seem to turn like “mill wheels” as the poet Emily Dickinson described them.
By August, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds turn south once again, retreating with the energy and abundance of summer.