(Beyond Pesticides, February 3, 2017) The Ruby Throated Hummingbird is the pollinator of the month for February. Hummingbirds are nature’s most nimble of birds. They are so quick and agile that most of the time all you’ll see is a flash of red and green before realizing you just encountered a Ruby Throated Hummingbird. This month’s pollinator is the most abundant species of hummingbird on the eastern half of North America. They are named after the coloration of ruby red feathers around their throat.
The Ruby Throated Hummingbird is the most populous hummingbird found east of the Mississippi. They enjoy mild habitats such as pine and deciduous forests, and can also be found zipping around urban and suburban gardens and orchards. Ruby Throated Hummingbirds “winter,” meaning they migrate to warmer parts of the globe during the colder winter months. They typically spend that time in parts of Central America and southern Mexico, but have been known to travel as far south as Costa Rica and the West Indies, according to Animal Diversity Web. They will often migrate without stopping, traveling distances as great as 1,600 km in one trip. According to the Encyclopedia of Life, the hummingbird’s mating grounds are typically east of the 100th meridian in the United States and parts of southern Canada. Their ability to inhabit such a diverse range of habitats make them an important pollinator to many ecosystems across eastern North America.
Diet and Pollination
Nectar from flowering plants comprises the majority of the Ruby Throated Hummingbird’s diet, but fat and protein are supplied by small insects, including mosquitoes, spiders, gnats, fruit flies, and small species of bees. They have also been observed eating tree sap, and their northern limit is probably determined by the availability of sap provided by the drilling of sapsuckers.
According to the Encyclopedia of Life, Ruby Throated Hummingbirds have adapted to be able to see the UV spectrum of light in addition to the visible light spectrum, which helps them locate and differentiate between a variety flowers. Their favorites include: Red Buckeye, Jewel Weed, Trumpet Creeper, Red Morning Glory, Coral Honeysuckle and the Cardinal Flower, just to name a few.
Most hummingbirds are small statured compared to their other avian counterparts, and the Ruby Throated Hummingbird is no exception. Ranging in length from 7 to 9 cm and weighing only a few grams, the bird can easily fit in the palm of your hand. Their incredible flying abilities are attributed to their lightweight and stream line bodies. Spectacular as those abilities are, however, they can be taxing on the bird and require a lot of energy. Because of this, the Ruby Throated Hummingbird will consume twice their body weight in food each day.
Ruby Throated Hummingbird’s coloration is striking, featuring beautiful shades of green, white and red. Males can be distinguished from females by their tail feathers, as males have a forked feather configuration while females boast a square feather configuration with white tips. Males additionally have the characteristic red, ruby throat while females will have a duller, grayish-red colored throat. Females are larger than their male counterparts.
Ruby Throated Hummingbirds are migratory birds, returning to their breeding grounds in eastern North America each spring. Males generally return to the breeding grounds ahead of females to stake out their territory for mating. Once a female enters a male’s territory, the male bird will court the female with a dive display meant to impress the female. As part of this display, the male will do a variety of loops and acrobatic flying maneuvers, beating its wings up to 200 times per second. After successful breeding, the female constructs a nest for her eggs out of bud scales and lichen, held together with spider’s silk and lined with plant down. There the female will lay one to three eggs, which are incubated for 10-14 days before they hatch, a cycle that is repeated two or three times per breeding season. The average lifespan of the Ruby Throated Hummingbird is about nine years.
Ruby Throated Hummingbirds live on a diet of nectar from a variety of flowering plants and, as previously stated, consume up to twice their bodyweight in nectar each day. This requires constant foraging for sources of nectar and the birds spend most of their day flying flower to flower in search of this food source. They are equipped with a long, skinny modified beak that allows them to access nectar, as well as a long tongue that can further be extended into the flower.
While foraging for nectar the hummingbird simultaneously contaminates itself with pollen particles from the flower. The pollen sticks to the birds’ feathers and beak, allowing the bird to transport it to the next flower it visits. Once that pollen comes in to contact with a new flower, the plant is inadvertently cross-pollinated, allowing the plant to reproduce. The abundance of Ruby Throated Hummingbirds make them an integral pollinator to ecosystems across the eastern United States and parts of Canada. Partners for flight, an organization that tracks land birds for conservation purposes, estimates the Ruby Throated Hummingbird population in North America and Canada is as great as 34 million.
Threats to Existence
The Ruby Throated Hummingbird is currently a thriving species, labeled as a species with “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation. This simply means their existence is not currently at risk. The United States Geological Service Patuxent Wildlife research center, which has been tracking land bird species since the 1960’s, has found that Ruby Throated Hummingbird populations have been on the rise since their studies began. Even though the species is not currently at risk, however, conservation efforts to protect the birds’ future success should not be ignored. Destruction of natural habitat is a primary risk that can affect the hummingbird’s ability to prepare for migration, as well as diminish the bird’s breeding grounds and disrupt its reproductive success. The bird’s exposure to systemic pesticides that move through a plant’s vascular and is expressed in nectar is of particular concern.
How to Protect the Species
There are steps that can be taken to protect Ruby Throated Hummingbirds, one of the most popular being to install a hummingbird feeder in your yard or garden. Simple actions, like placing hummingbird feeders away from windows to prevent collisions, or situating feeders in places where cats and other neighborhood predators will have a difficult time reaching the birds, are important ways to help hummingbirds thrive. Routine cleaning of hummingbird feeders is also important, as rancid feeders can be detrimental to hummingbird health. Supplying your hummingbird feeder with the right nectar solution is also important. You can find a trusted nectar recipe recommended by the Smithsonian National Zoo by clicking here! Be sure to use organic sugar in the mix. It will ensure that the nectar solution is free of pesticides and additives.
Planting the aforementioned flowers preferred by the Ruby Throated Hummingbird is another way to preserve hummingbird populations, as they require nectar for survival. Make sure that the plants are not treated with systemic, including neonicotinoid, and other pesticides. Maintaining biodiversity in your garden will nurture the pollinators, including the hummingbirds.
What is Polli-NATION?
When it comes to pollination, bees tend to get all of the buzz. While they are crucial to pollinating many crops, bees are not the only pollinators working hard to provide the ecosystem services critical to the food system. In fact, one out of every three bites of food is made possible by pollinators. In order to raise awareness for the unsung pollinator heroes, Beyond Pesticides created the Polli-NATION Campaign, which highlights the important work of a relatively unknown pollinator each month, including butterflies, wasps, flies, beetles, birds, bats, and more. The campaign raises public awareness about these pollinators, their contribution to plant health and productivity and the preservation of natural resources, and the threats they face in their daily lives, including toxic pesticides and habitat loss. Learn what you can do in your community to help ensure their survival of all the pollinators.
Sources: Animal Diversity Web, Encyclopedia of Life, The Birder’s Handbook.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.