By Jim Poling Sr.
From Shaman’s Rock
They are on their way! You should be spotting them any day now.
The last time I checked they were crossing Lake Erie and some areas of southern Ontario were reporting sightings.
The arrival of the much-admired ruby-throated hummingbirds will complete another miracle of nature. They have been flying for days to get here, travelling thousands of kilometres from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.
Many have had to cross the Gulf of Mexico to get here – an 800-kilometre non-stop flight that takes 20 hours. Then they have to navigate roughly 1,800 kilometres over the eastern United States before crossing Lake Erie into Canada.
How something so tiny and so delicate can travel such incredible distances through winds, storms and fluctuating temperatures truly is a miracle. The average ruby-throated hummingbird is a mere nine centimetres long and weighs three grams, the weight of about three standard paper clips.
They might be tiny, but can be ferocious. Males use their needle-like bills to stab other males in fights for mates. Fights look like fencing, with the birds feinting, parrying and stabbing, sometimes knocking an opponent off its perch.
The Aztecs admired the beauty of these little birds but also saw them as bloodthirsty warriors. Huitzilopochtli, their god of war, was a hummingbird.
The hummingbirds’ unique bills also allow them to reach deep into tubular flowers to extract nectar. They need a lot of nectar to produce the energy needed for long migrations.
They need to eat every 10 or 15 minutes to fuel their supercharged little engines and consume as much as 12 times their body weight in nectar every day. To do all that feeding they visit hundreds of flowers every day.
During flight, a hummingbird’s wings flap up to 80 times a second, making them just a blur to the human eye. Those lightning speed wing flaps allow the birds to fly like helicopters, even upside down, often hovering in one place as they poke a bloom for nectar.
Hummingbirds are the only birds that can hover or fly backwards. However, they are not good on their feet. They can’t hop or walk very well because their legs are short and weak.
Their lifespan is three to five years, which seems long considering the extreme weather conditions they face during migrations, plus the predators and human-made obstacles that all birds face.
Hummers are great little birds to have around our places. They pollinate a wide range of flowering plants, carrying pollen on their beaks and feathers from one plant to another.
They are easily attracted to garden flowers and feeders. They favour the colour red and some people hang red ribbons on feeders, trees and other objects to ensure they come.
They will go to any bright colour but one theory is that they are partial to red because red flowers are where they find the most nectar.
All they need to make your place a favourite place is a nectar feeder, water source and places where they can perch when needed. Expert bird watchers say hummers are loyal and will return to a place every year if it has all the things they need.
They also advise to keep feeders well-spaced because hummers are territorial.
Nectar for feeders is basically sugar water – one part sugar to four parts water. Many people add red dye as an attractant, but the experts advise against this.
Red dye No.40 is known to cause cancerous tumours in rats and mice. It is one of the most common colour additives and is found in many foods and beverages, notably energy and sports drinks.
There have been claims that this dye impairs hummingbird reproduction and causes skin and bill tumours. There is no definitive proof that red dye is harmful to hummers, but also no proof that it does not harm them.
Anyone wanting to be better safe than sorry can simply use a non-coloured mixture of sugar and water and tie red ribbons to the feeders and elsewhere.
Just a little more sunshine and warmth and we’ll all be seeing them at our feeders. It will be great to have them back.