Bird of the Week: Ruby-throated Hummingbird

By Abby West
Feature photo by Tibor Nagy

Flashes of red and green whiz by our back patio and my kids run out shrieking, “the hummers are back!” The arrival of the Ruby-throated hummingbirds marks the beginning of summer in our backyard, although hummingbirds arrive from their wintering range in Mexico or Central America here to Central Texas anytime from March to May. There is much to be learned about this ambitious migration these tiny birds make, but everything science has shown us up til now does not disappoint.

For instance, hummingbirds can fly over 1,200 miles without stopping. In fact, many of them fly straight over the Gulf of Mexico when migrating between coasts. For a bird that weighs on average as much as four raisins, this is an incredible feat. Researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi Theodore Zenzal says, “the most interesting thing, in my opinion, is how some of these birds effectively double their body mass during migration and are still able to perform migratory flights, especially given some of the heftier birds seem to barely make it to a nearby branch after being released.” It’s a wonder they can fly so far but it’s a good thing they can, because their legs are so short they can’t walk or hop. The best they can do is side shuffle briefly on a branch.

Another curious mystery that science is still trying to solve is how hummingbirds ended up exclusively in the Americas. They have cropped up elsewhere in the world over the course of history– 35 million year old fossils having been unearthed in Germany, but their existence apparently ceased to make sense somewhere along the way, as nowadays they can be found nowhere else on earth besides here.

Photo by Daniel Lamborn

On the topic of rarities, the Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species of hummer to breed in North America. Here in Texas, their breeding habitats tend to be closer to sea level and near food sources like honeysuckles, lantana, and feeders. They often build their ping-pong ball sized nest on deciduous tree branches, lining the inside with spider webs and decorating the outside with lichen. After fertilization, females lay two jelly bean sized eggs (how adorable!). About two weeks later, the next generation of hummers is born and to survive, they need to be ready to begin their long migration journey as little as two months later.

I’ve often wondered as I sip my coffee, watching them battle over the feeder if they’re the same ones as last year or the year before that. With a lifespan of 3-5 years, it’s not impossible and I’ve seen research indicating that many migrating birds frequent the exact same pit stops and breeding grounds year after year- often down to the same backyards or urban pocket parks. I like to imagine all the wonders their small eyes have seen; how they are just as at home in the depths of the Amazon untouched by humans as they are in my backyard this morning. The world that this impossibly tiny and ambitious bird inhabits seems to be a much larger one than mine.


Ruby throated hummingbird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Tiny Hummingbirds’ Incredible Migration, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Origins of Hummingirds Are Still A Major Mystery, National Audubon Society

Ruby throated hummingbird, Texas Breeding Bird Atlas