Beyond Your Backyard: Tiny green torpedoes

I recently crashed a motorized mini bike at my grandma’s farm and suffered a concussion. My cousin’s response was to congratulate me on passing the “test” and becoming a true Indiana redneck. I’m not sure about that, but it did make me chuckle.

To pass the time in recovery, I’ve been observing three male hummingbirds vie for control of my neighbor’s hummingbird feeder. Who will reign supreme?! I can’t tell them apart so I’m not sure who’s winning, but it is entertaining to see them jockey back and forth. Tiny green torpedoes zipping from feeder to the branches of nearby trees and back again. As the temperature volleys between 90 and 60 degrees during the day—in its own war between summer and fall, this got me thinking and invariably, worrying about how these pint sized beasties will make it through migration. Surely, temperature jumps like these are messing with the urgency of nature’s signal to migrate. To ease my mind, I broke my doctor’s orders and did a little research.

Did you know?

  • There are 100’s of different kinds of Hummingbirds, but only one species, the Ruby-throated, occurs in eastern North America
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can beat their wings more than 50 times per second!
  • This wing-action comes in handy for the birds who migrate over 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico in a roughly 22-hour sustained flight!
  • Not all Ruby-throated Hummingbirds directly cross the gulf. Some travel along the Texas and Louisiana coastlines to make their way to Mexico. Some birds stay in North America, overwintering along that same coastline, southern Florida, and islands in the Caribbean.
  • Migratory flights are unguided—meaning juvenile hummingbirds are making the trip without parental guidance or navigation tricks. Whichever path they choose to Mexico and Central America is the one they continue using on future flights!
  • Luckily, temperature is not the only thing that signals it’s time to migrate. Hummingbirds take their cues from a decline in blooming flowers and insects as well as their internal biological clock. Cooling weather does play a role and scientists are studying how this may affect many migrating birds receiving the right signals to migrate.
  • For Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, these signals are especially important because of their size, weighing in at less than a nickel, they need to eat 25-40% of their body weight to refuel during the long migration. If they don’t receive the cues, flowers and insects could already be scarce further south, which would be disastrous for these tiny migrators. Missing a meal might mean being trapped in cooler climates where they simply cannot survive through a cold winter.

While I ponder all of these neat hummingbird facts, I find myself asking the age old question of an ecologist—how do hummingbirds fit into the bigger fabric of the ecosystem? I would certainly miss them and the thrill I get when they zip into view if they were gone, but what exactly is their ecological role? It only took me a moment to find an attribute that every Minnesotan can appreciate. Under food, main insect prey: mosquitos and gnats. So, what are you waiting for? Be sure to clean those feeders and give a friendly wave to your new summer BFF, the Ruby-throat as they make their way down to Mexico and beyond for the winter ahead.

More on hummingbirds:

Do Hummingbirds Migrate?