Hummingbird Facts and Family Introduction


The Hummingbird Family

Busy time at the hummingbird feeder during fall migration in Texas
Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds
Photo courtesy of the author

Hummingbirds comprise the family Trochilidae, among the smallest of birds, with most species measuring in the 3"-5" range. They weigh only a few grams.

They feature long slender needlelike bills adapted for reaching deep into tubular flowers to extract nectar.

The Hummingbird Diet

Their diet consists of nectar from flowers (red is the favorite color), small insects such as aphids and spiders, and sometimes even pollen and sap.

Hummingbirds feed in many small meals, consuming small invertebrates and up to twelve times their own body weight in nectar each day.

Many plant species rely on hummingbirds for pollination and provide nectar and tiny insects in exchange. Hummingbirds staunchly and aggressively defend a feeding area, or feeder, even when not feeding.

Flying ... and Walking

The beat of their wings is so rapid, up to 55 times a second, that a "humming" sound is produced, and the wings appear blurred. They are the only bird species that can hover, and fly backwards, or even upside down. The ability to hover allows the hummingbirds to sip the nectar of plants and flowers.

A hummingbird can't walk or hop, but can shuffle with its extremely short legs, which are not very strong.

Resting

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Hummingbirds have the ability to go into a deep resting period, called "torpor", in which their respiration and heart rate become very slow. This can happen in cold weather, and the metabolic rate can drop to 1/5 of normal.

Talking and Communicating

Hummingbirds have a variety of calls, chips, chatters and squeals to communicate with each other. Each species has its own "language" to alert other hummers or to challenge "invaders" of their feeding territories.

Life Expectancy of Hummingbirds

Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Photo courtesy FWS

Hummingbirds, like all wildlife, can be victims of natural as well as man-made hazards. Young hummingbirds must deal with rain, hail, cold weather, wind, snakes, squirrels, cats, dogs, ants and larger birds. And hummers have to navigate around houses, telephone poles, glass windows and buildings. Plus, other man-made obstacles such as ecosystem destruction and the use of pesticides have a negative impact on hummingbird populations.

Hummingbirds migrate in the spring, and again in the fall. Migration is always a challenge for hummingbirds, who must fly huge distances to live in an environment that is warm and has a plentiful food supply. Strong head winds, hurricanes, and cold fronts are difficult to fly through.

The average life span of a Ruby-Throated hummingbird is estimated by experts to be 3 - 5 years. Most deaths occur in the first year of life. The record age of a banded Ruby-Throated hummingbird is 6 years, 11 months.

 

Mating and Pairing

Hummingbirds do not "pair up" as do many birds, but instead the male and female go their own way after mating is complete. The male will move on to other females. The female is left with the job of building the nest, incubating the eggs and raising the young birds.

Hummingbird Nests and Eggs

A hummingbird's nest is very small, usually about 1.5" in diameter. Eggs are likewise small, less than 1" long, about the size of a jelly bean.

The female lays her eggs on different days. The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird lays 2 eggs. Black-chinned Hummingbird, Anna's Hummingbird, Costa's Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird and Allen's Hummingbird all lay 1-3 eggs. Gestation period is about 16-18 days.

The Most Common Hummingbird Species

The hummingbird family is very large, with over 330 species and 115 genera, mostly south of the United States. Hummingbirds are found only in the Western Hemisphere, with almost half the species living in the "equatorial belt" between 10 degrees north and south of the equator. Fewer than two dozen species venture into the U.S. and Canada, and only a few species remain year-round.

This is a list of the most common hummingbird species found in the USA:

Common Name
Scientific Name
Allen’s Selasphorus sasin
Anna’s Calypte anna
Berylline Amazilia beryllina
Black-Chinned Archilochus alexandri
Blue-Throated Lampornis clemenciae
Broad-Billed Cynanthus latirostris
Broad-Tailed Selasphorus platycercus
Buff-Bellied Amazilia yucatanensis
Calliope Stellula calliope
Costa’s Calypte costae
Green-Breasted Mango Anthracothorax prevostii
Green Violet-Ear Colibri thalassinus
Lucifer Calothorax lucifer
Magnificent Eugenes fulgens
Ruby-Throated Archilochus colubris
Rufous Selasphorus rufus
Violet-Crowned Amazilia violiceps
White-Eared Hylocharis leucotis

Where Are Hummingbirds Found?

In the Eastern and Central United States and Canada, the most common species is the Ruby-Throated hummingbird. Several species are in the Gulf region.

In the Western United States, one will often find Anna’s, Black-Chinned, Calliope, Broad-Tailed, Allen’s, White-Eeared, and Rufous hummingbirds. In Texas and the Southwestern United States, all species will be found from time to time.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird on Giant California Zinnia

The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is the only species regularly seen over most the eastern United States. Ruby-Throats are the only hummingbird found east of the Great Plains, except for the Rufous.

It is about 3 3/4" in length, and metallic green above. Its notes are a rapid, high-pitched squeaky, chipping sound.

The adult male has a brilliant ruby red throat (gorget), black chin, and deeply notched, forked tail.

The female's throat is white, and immatures are similar in color to the female. The female body is slender, with a blunt, rounded tail with white corners. The female Ruby-Throated and Black-Chinned are very similar, but have separate ranges. Males use a repeating "pendulum" arch of flight to attract females.

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