One of the perks of living in North America is the yearly visitation by winged creatures so fabulous, they might have flown out of the pages of a fairytale. Named for the hum or trill created by the wings of some of the world’s 340 species, hummingbirds’ amazing appendages beat 50 to 60 times per SECOND, but brief bursts exceeding this frequency are possible. With an average lifespan of 4 years, and a maximum of 12, as one banded individual attested, this amounts from 7 BILLION wingbeats in shorter-lived birds, to about 21 BILLION in “longevitous” individuals. Their capability to propel themselves forward, backward, sideways, up, and down, and to hover in place, must be every flight engineer’s envy.
These fairy-like beings are among the most wonderful of avian wonders. Compared to Cuba’s Bee Hummingbird that weighs under 0.1 ounce (0.07, to be exact), and measures 2.4 inches in length, the Giant Hummingbird of the Andes tips the scale at a ponderous 0.8 ounce, and reaches 9 inches between tip of beak and tip of tail, though most species are from 3 to 6 inches long. To support the pumping wings and pumping heart which contracts 250 times per minute when resting, up to 1200 plus times when active, their metabolism, the highest of any homoeothermic animal, is about 100 times that of an elephant. In an attempt to conserve energy at nighttime and during cold spells, they enter a state of torpor not unlike hibernation, during which their core temperature and heart rate plummet. Even though not all species equal the Rufous Hummingbird’s twice yearly migration from Mexico to Alaska, and back, approaching a round-trip of 10,000 miles, most easily qualify for the frequent flyer club.
Apart from catching protein-rich aerial insects, hummingbirds are predominantly nectarivorous and frequent flowers whose blossoms accommodate their long, needle-like beaks from which they lap up the liquid with their long tongues, but they are amenable to man-made nectar proffered in feeders. Because many gravitate to shades of red, commercial feeding stations usually incorporate this color. The recommended mixture of four parts water and one part sugar sounds sweet enough, but I have a friend who uses both parts equally. His saccharine liquid is the stuff of hummingbird legend.
Sexually dimorphic, females tend to be slightly larger and may be surprisingly plain and easily confused, whereas males are typically more colorful. Iridescent hues are the result not of pigment, but of feather structure. The throats of adult males may seem black in dim light, but when hit by sunshine, suddenly shimmer and shine in shades borrowed from the rainbow. These resplendent patches are called gorgets, from the French word gorge, meaning throat, but might be derived from their gorgeous appearance as well. Paradisiacal in look only, their behavior is anything but. Territorial and aggressive, they regularly chase one another from food sources, leading to a paradoxical waste of energy.
The male performs J-, U-, or O-shaped courtship dives, accompanied by vibrant buzzing of his wings. Once his bravado behavior and sparkly plumes dazzle a girl, he performs his evolutionary duty, then takes off for other pursuits. Females build nests the size of walnuts, and lay eggs the size of beans. The typical clutch of two is tended to by the mother alone, until the young ones are ready to fledge after three weeks.
Of the three hundred-plus hummingbird species that solely exist in the Americas, 24 spend part or all of their lives in North America, and 4 of them occur regularly in our corner of Colorado. Their appearance in mid- to late April, often while a late blizzard blows and blankets burgeoning blossoms in white, is a longed-for and cherished sight, and the beginning of their all-too brief sojourn in our latitudes. My heart, still gladdened by their presence, is saddened by the knowledge that these precious creatures will soon move on.
Seeing stunning hummingbird photos by many capable photographers reminds me of my woeful state of photographic ineptitude, but I hope I still captured the charisma of these magnificent marvels.