A whirring noise fills the air, and a blur swoops down to a small bush. Careful scrutiny of the twigs reveals a tiny, skinny bird with a long bill and a bright red iridescent throat. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are common throughout the Eastern United States, but they are easy to miss due to their small size and fast flight.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds’ small size and distinctive flight make them difficult to misidentify. Males have glittering green backs and iridescent red throats that can appear dark in shadow, along with a pale chest with light green flanks. Females lack the red throat, with white feathers and generally duller green colors; immature males in fall often show one or two red feathers in the throat. Hummingbirds fly in a very upright posture, beating their wings in a figure-eight pattern so fast that they appear blurred. Ruby-throateds have fairly long beaks compared to other North American hummingbirds; overall, the entire bird is only 2-3in long. As Ruby-throateds are the only hummingbird regularly found east of the Mississippi, there are few other things that could be confused with it. The most common confusing species is not a bird but several species of moths, the Hummingbird moths. Hummingbird moths are diurnal moths that have a thick, fuzzy body and fly with an upright, fast wing beat pattern that allows them to hover like hummingbirds. There are several similar species, including Hummingbird Hawk-moths and Hummingbird Clearwings, but they all can be confused with hummingbirds. They lack, however, the green tones of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and their lack of a bill or long tail soon distinguishes it from a hummingbird. Rare Rufous Hummingbirds appear smaller, chubbier, and shorter-billed, with ruddy highlights in the tail and flanks. Even rarer Black-chinned Hummingbirds appear practically identical, but males have a purple-black throat rather than a red throat, and their folded wing shape is subtly different. Both of these hummingbirds would be quite rare, however.
Ruby-throateds are the only regularly occurring hummingbird east of the Mississippi River; their range is restricted to the Eastern U.S., extending west to Nebraska and north to southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Ruby-throateds are highly migratory, flying from the northern limits of their range across the Gulf of Mexico. In order to make it across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula in a single flight, many Ruby-throateds double their body weight in fat reserves, relying on that energy to get to overwintering sites in Central America. During the spring, summer, and fall, however, Ruby-throateds are common breeding birds. Around Portage Lake, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds arrive to nest at the beginning of May and depart south at the beginning of October. Although some may linger into the wintertime at feeders, after October, late hummingbirds are more likely to be rarities such as Rufous Hummingbirds rather than lingering Ruby-throateds.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds forage on nectar for a concentrated source of energy, but they also feed on small spiders and gnats for protein. Hummingbird feeders provide reliable sources of food for hummingbirds, and they are excellent ways to see hummingbirds regularly. Many species of ornamental flowers, including Trumpet Creeper, Bee Balm, and Cardinal Flower, have bright orange or red tones that are particularly attractive to hummingbirds.
Archilochus, the genus name for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, is the name of a Greek poet known for his vigorous, energetic poetry, like the hyperactive hummingbird. Colubris, the species name, is derived from the Spanish colibrí, meaning hummingbird. Hummingbirds are currently only found on North and South America, although ancient bones have been discovered in Europe, and European explorers were impressed by the tiny, aerodynamic birds: Columbus referred to them as “flying marvels,” and many Europeans had trouble believing that they existed.
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