Arrival of hummingbirds is the true sign of spring
One of the true signs of spring is the arrival of hummingbirds here in Iowa. Although there are 320 species of hummingbirds throughout the world, only 23 are found in North America, and only five species have been recorded in Iowa. Nonetheless, hummingbirds are among the most loved birds because of their tiny size, their beautiful iridescent colors, and their feistiness.
Of the five species of hummingbirds that have been recorded in Iowa, three (the Anna’s Hummingbird, the Broad-billed Hummingbird, and the Mexican Violetear) are considered accidental visitors to our state, having been spotted only a few times. The Rufous Hummingbird is considered a casual visitor to our state, since it is spotted every now and then, but is not common. Normally, it inhabits the western U.S., up to Canada and Alaska, but will occasionally show up a bit further east.
By far, the most common hummingbird in Iowa is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. It nests in Iowa and is seen throughout the state from May until September. Once fall arrives, the little birds head south where they winter from southern Texas down to Costa Rica. Then, in the spring, they return. That’s a long migration for such a tiny little bird.
Hummingbirds typically feed on nectar, the sweet juice found inside flowers, especially red flowers. They use their long beaks and tongues to reach the nectar. But, they will also feed on small insects, such as ants and aphids, as well as spiders. Hummingbirds can hover at flowers, drinking nectar and eating insects, by flapping their wings over 50-80 times a second. This makes their wings look like a blur and also produces a buzzing or humming sound, thus giving the birds their name. This rapid wingbeat also allows them to fly backwards, the only birds that are known to have that ability.
In order to fly more efficiently, hummingbirds do not have down feathers that would otherwise weigh them down. So, they have a difficult time staying warm, if the temperature cools down. To combat this, they can fall into a state of torpor, temporarily lowering their metabolism to conserve energy. As a result, their body temperature falls and their heart rate plummets (from about 1,200 beats per minute to around 50) until the temperature warms up.
The Ruby-throated Hum-mingbirds that are so common in Iowa are easy to identify. In addition to their small size (less than 4”) and fast flying, they are an iridescent green color. The males also have bright, ruby-red throat feathers called gorgets. Hummingbirds are often confused with Sphinx Moths, but Sphinx Moths are smaller, are usually brown and/or white, and are usually seen during dusk or after dark.
Because of their love of nectar, hummingbirds are easily attracted to sugar water feeders, and many people enjoy using the feeders to draw the hummingbirds closer. In fact, since hummingbirds are territorial, they will often fight and chase each other as they attempt to gain control of “their” feeders. Feeders should be a red color, since hummingbirds are attracted to red, but the water itself does not need to be. The water should be mixed in a 1:4 ratio, or ¼ cup sugar in one cup of water. Only sugar should be used, as artificial sweeteners do not provide the energy that hummingbirds need and honey can be harmful to them. Make sure to change the water often, especially in hot weather. If the water gets cloudy, that means that the sugar is fermenting, creating alcohol that can be toxic to the birds.
And, if you see hummingbirds around throughout the summer, that means they may be nesting in the area. Finding the nest, though, may be difficult. They are only about the size of a walnut and are usually located 10’-20’ feet off the ground. Only the females construct the nest and incubate the eggs. The nests are made of plant down and lichens and are often attached to a small branch with spider silk, making them look more like a knot on the branch than an actual nest. Usually two bean-sized, white eggs are laid and they take about two weeks to hatch.
Whether you’re able to find a hummingbird nest or not, the antics of these tiny birds are always fun to watch. Hummingbirds are back now, so be sure to look for them and, if you want, provide them with some delicious sugar water to keep them around. If you do, they will, in turn, provide you with colorful enjoyment throughout the summer. Don’t miss it.