It’s been a good season for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I have been seeing plenty of these tiny birds at home, and I am also hearing from several readers who are also enjoying the daily hummingbird show at their feeders and in their gardens. Perhaps the warmer temperatures and abundant rainfall is actually good for hummingbirds.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird and its more than 340 relatives comprise the family Trochilidae, which is derived from the Greek term trochilos, which translates as “small bird.” As marvelous as the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is in the eyes of bird enthusiasts, the hummingbird family is an incredibly diverse one with many unusual members.
While many of the word’s species bear the word “hummingbird” in their common name, others are known as hermits, sicklebills, lancebills, visorbearers, train-bearers, brilliants, jewelfronts, sunangels, metaltails, sheartails, sapphires, emeralds, thornbills, fairies, plumeleteers, goldenthroats, piedtails, jacobins, woodstars, mangos, hillstars, woodnymphs, coronets, coquettes, sapphirewings, violetears, comets, Incas, starfrontlets, avocetbills, blossomcrowns, streamertails, racket-tails, topazes, awlbills, rubies, mountain-gems, caribs, sungems, firecrowns, sylphs, spatuletails, streamertails, velvetbreasts, starthroats, barbthroats, goldenthroats, mountaineers, helmetcrests and pufflegs.
The names conjure forth romantic, dramatic imagery which, more often than not, is well-deserved by these various flying gems.
As they are unique to the New World, hummingbirds were unknown in the Old World before Europeans began to colonize the Americas around 1500.
A Spaniard, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, was the first European to make note of hummingbirds. Fernández, impressed by their incredible plumage, wrote that they shone “like little birds painted to illuminate the margins of holy books.”
He was one of many Spanish citizens who came to the New World to colonize the Caribbean, which remains even today a region rich in hummingbirds.
Fernández, commonly known as “Oviedo,” lived from 1478 to 1557 and made his mark as a Spanish historian and writer. He chronicled the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean, and his extensive writing on the colonizations remains one of the few primary sources regarding this historically important event.
In addition to writing about the New World’s hummingbirds, Fernández wrote about native cooking techniques, including “barbacoa,” or barbecue. Because he documented this term, which came from the Taino tribe, Fernández probably secured the term for history. He also introduced Europe to such New World exports as the hammock and tobacco.
Some very distinctive hummingbirds have evolved to occupy some special niches in the natural world. Consider the Bearded Helmetcrest, a species of small hummingbird native to Colombia and Venezuela. Adult males of this species have a distinctive pointed black crest and a shaggy, white beard, which provided the inspiration for its common name. Females lack the crest and beard.
The Bearded Helmetcrest is found in páramo, which is a tropical high-altitude grassland found in the high elevations of the Andes mountains. The species was first described for science by French ornithologist Auguste Boissonneau in 1840.
There’s probably not a stranger hummingbird than the Sword-billed Hummingbird. This species of hummingbird from South America, and the sole member of the genus Ensifera, is found in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. The Sword-billed Hummingbird is noted as the only species of bird to have a bill longer than the rest of its body. This adaptation evolved to allow the bird to feed on the nectar of flowers with long corollas. The tongue is also unusually long. The elongated bill makes it impossible for this hummingbird to preen its feathers. Instead, the Sword-billed Hummingbird must use its feet to groom itself.
Hummingbirds are known for making unanticipated appearances in some rather unlikely locations. For instance, a juvenile male Green-breasted Mango visited a feeder at a private residence in Concord, N.C., in November of 2000. I actually got to see that bird, making a road trip with Howard Langridge, Gary Wallace and Reece Jamerson.
Since that first-ever appearance of a Green-breasted Mango in the United States outside of Texas, two more individuals have been documented. A juvenile male was found in Beloit, Wis., in the fall of 2007. Another juvenile bird, possibly a male, was also observed in Dublin, Ga., in October 2007.
What makes these appearances by Green-breasted Mangos unusual is the fact the species normally resides in eastern and southern Mexico south through Central America, including some near-shore islands, to Costa Rica. For the species to wander into Wisconsin, North Carolina and Georgia was unheard of. The species has become an increasingly frequent vagrant and extremely rare resident in the lower Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas since it was first observed there in 1988.
In addition to the Green-breasted Mango and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the other members of the family on my life list include Allen’s Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird and Calliope Hummingbird, all found in the United States, as well as two Caribbean species — Cuban Emerald and Bahama Woodstar — that I observed during a cruise to the Bahamas about 15 years ago.
The Caribbean is home to several different species of hummingbirds. One of the most dramatic looking is the Red-billed Streamertail. This hummingbird, also known as the Doctor Bird, is native to Jamaica, where it is the most abundant and widespread member of the hummingbird family and has been adopted as that country’s national bird. The long tail feathers forming the “streamertail” for which it is named, make up the most distinctive feature of this bird. These feathers can reach a length of seven inches, far longer than the rest of the bird’s body.
The Caribbean is also home to the world’s smallest bird. The Bee Hummingbird or Zunzuncito (Spanish for hummingbird) is endemic to Cuba and Isla de la Juventud. Locals also give this bird the diminutive nickname of “Zun Zun.”
With a mass of about 1.8 grams — a penny weighs about two grams — and a length of only two inches, it is the smallest living bird. Roughly the size of a bee, this tiny hummingbird may visit 1,500 flowers in a single day just to obtain enough nourishment to fuel its body.
By contrast, the world’s largest hummingbird is the aptly named Giant Hummingbird, which weighs 18 to 20 grams and measures approximately eight and a half inches in length. When the Giant Hummingbird spreads its wings, they unfurl to a width of eight and a half inches. This hummingbird of the Andes mountains of South America is the size of an Eastern Bluebird.
Hummingbirds are masters of adaptation. Some live in rain forest jungles while others inhabit high-elevation mountaintops. Some have even adapted to life in arid deserts.
The Lucifer Hummingbird is native to deserts and arid areas that offer an abundance of agave plants in the southwestern United States, from southwest Texas, extreme southwestern New Mexico to extreme southeastern Arizona, and in central and north Mexico. It is also found in the Madrean sky islands of the northern end of the Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico.
While the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America, boast a rich diversity of hummingbirds, the only member of the family that nests in eastern North America is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
Many types of cultivated flowers attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Many types of red flowers attract hummingbirds, but these tiny birds will also feed on other colors of flowers.
Some flowering plants known for attracting hummingbirds include impatiens, bee balm, hollyhocks, weigela, fuchsia, begonias, morning glories and iris.
The best approach to attracting hummingbirds is to provide sugar water feeders in addition to a well-planted landscape with a variety of nectar-producing flowers and shrubs and trees for perching.
To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, call me at 297-9077 or 542-4151 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.