(Photo courtesy of John Plunkett)

One afternoon in early July, my father and I were having lunch on the deck at my parents’ house. The deck is home to several bird feeders, so meals there generally include some kid of avian sighting, or at least a visit from our resident chipmunk.

My mother had recently installed a brightly colored glass hummingbird feeder on a post just a couple feet away from the dining table. While we have seen plenty of hummingbirds during our trips to Mexico, we had yet to spot one in our own yard. Which is not to say that we weren’t looking . . . For years, my mother has done her best to lure hummingbirds to the yard, tending a variety of brightly-colored flowers all summer long.

Halfway through our meal, my father and I heard the familiar sounds of beating wings. We expected to see a nuthatch, goldfinch or bluejay, but instead looked up to discover a hummingbird hovering at the feeder, right above our heads. Afraid we might spook it, we stayed completely still, and silent, and were awestruck as the bird investigated the feeder for at least a minute. It would sip at the sugar water contained within, then hover some more, then sip again, and then hover. Eventually it flew away.

Until they started selling hummingbird feeders at local food stores, I had no idea that the South Shore was even part of this tiny bird’s habitat. There are numerous varieties, but only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris , can be found in Massachusetts.

The ruby-throated hummingbird typically winters in the tropical rainforests of Central America. In the spring it migrates north, arriving in Florida in March, and at different points east of the Mississippi River in April and May. By mid-May, it may even travel as far as southern Canada. How far north a hummingbird intends to fly determines when it will leave its breeding grounds. It likes to arrive at its summer home when the flowers it feeds on come into bloom, and depart once they have gone by (In Massachusetts, this is usually mid-September). It is especially attracted to red, bright pink, red-orange and deep blue hues.

True to its name, the male ruby-throated hummingbird has a bright red throat. Its underside is white, while its back and head are an iridescent light green. Extremely small, it grows to a maximum length of only three inches. Due in large part to its diminutive size and versatile movement capability, people often mistake the hummingbird for an insect. Unlike most other birds, the hummingbird can fly in any direction – up, down, to either side, backward, and even upside-down.

While they are agile in flight, hummingbirds are very limited on the ground. Many other birds can walk, however awkwardly, but hummingbirds have tiny feet that permit movement over only the smallest distances. Their feet enable them to perch, but even when traveling a couple of inches, they must fly. Thus it is important that they be able to flap their wings very fast, to summon sufficient energy to propel them short distances. If you spot a hummingbird hovering, it may appear that it is magically suspended in space, but in fact its wings are flapping so fast (about 50 times per second) that it is difficult to detect the movement with the naked eye. This movement is so fine-tuned that the hummingbird can start and stop suddenly yet smoothly.

Such versatility requires a lot of energy. A hummingbird must feed every ten minutes or so, throughout the day. Mostly it consumes sugar – from flower nectar and the sap of trees (or the sugar water we put in feeders). It also feeds on insects and pollen. A long, tapered tongue enables it to probe deep into flowers to find the nectar.

When they aren’t busy feeding, hummingbirds communicate with each other visually. The male will raise some of its feathers, or move its head from side to side, or make U-shaped dives, often making vocal sounds at the same time. Females and young spread their tail feathers. All types will do shuttle flights, a series of rapid movements. Such displays are integral to the mating ritual.

While this can cause quite a stir, a hummingbird will make even more of a ruckus when it needs to guard a food supply or protect its territory. In “defense” mode, a hummingbird may puff up, collide with or dive bomb another bird, jab another bird with its bill, or engage in a “hand to hand” fight by locking bills or flapping feathers. While a hummingbird will challenge another, much larger bird such as a crow or a hawk, rest assured it will not go after a human.

If you like to observe the natural world, I recommend installing a hummingbird feeder in your yard. It may be awhile before you see a hummingbird right up close, but it’s well worth the wait. If you need further incentive, consider this: in Mexico, they say that hummingbirds bring love and romance.


By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
July 2005