One of our local summer bird residents, despite its dazzling appearance, is so small it often goes unnoticed. Several times in June a quick movement has caught my eye and it has taken me a few seconds to realize that it was a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilocus colubris) zooming through the flowers.
Many bird enthusiasts maintain feeders for hummingbirds, filling them with highly sweetened water, so the birds come often and predictably. I choose instead to grow an array of native plants that bloom at different times and never fail to attract hummingbirds. But their appearances at those nectar sources – Mertensia (Virginia bluebells), columbine, Solomon’s seal, to name a few – are always surprises. Suddenly one is hovering about a blossom, zipping left, zipping right, beating its wings more than 50 times a second, then disappearing just as suddenly – another ephemeral appearance that always leaves me wondering, Where did it come from? Where is it going?
I know, generally, where most birds nest near our house: the phoebe under the eaves; the bluebirds, chickadees, tree swallows, house wrens in houses we’ve provided them; the gnatcatchers, pewees, tanagers, cedar waxwings in the oaks. I’ve watched many of them build their nests. But the ruby-throated hummingbird is another story. Never has one revealed to me where it has located its nest and reared its young. It’s a mystery I long to solve.
Ruby-throats are one of sixteen hummingbird species found regularly in the United States. With few exceptions, it’s the only species that occurs east of the Rocky Mountains. So if you spot a hummingbird locally, you can know with considerable confidence that it’s a ruby-throat.
The males and females do look different however. It is the male’s iridescent crimson throat feathers that give the bird its name; the female has no flashy red throat. The head and back feathers are a metallic green on both sexes and the bill thin and straight, about the same length as the head.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds build their nests of dandelion and thistle down, lichen, and moss. They use spider silk as an adhesive to craft a tiny bowl less than two inches across and situate it atop a slender, often declining limb of a tree. It is almost unimaginable that they can raise two to three young in that wee nursery.
But even more amazing is that these diminutive creatures fly clear across the Gulf of Mexico to reach their breeding grounds in the Barrington area and other parts of eastern North America. Without map, compass, or GPS, they manage to navigate from and to their winter homes in Central America, braving wind, storms, predators en route. It is an extraordinary journey for a bird that weighs one- to two-tenths of an ounce, less than the weight of a nickel!
Locally, you might see a ruby-throated hummingbird almost anywhere there are flowers in bloom – in home gardens or natural areas, especially where there are trees nearby for perching. When they begin their southward migration in September, one of the best places to look for ruby-throats is where spotted jewelweed, a native Impatiens, is in flower. Their blooms coincide with the hummingbirds’ southward journey. It is possible to watch a dozen or more of them feeding at once in a healthy stand of jewelweed.
Keep an eye out for the ruby-throated hummingbird this summer. Maybe you’ll spot one prospecting for nectar or perching or, if you have better detective skills than I, headed to or from is nest. The bird is a marvel – for its strength, its maneuverability, its stamina, its beauty. It is worthy of the epithet, Jewel of Barrington.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.