Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

2022 April 3

Here is one of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that come to our house every summer. They are such tiny little birds (bodies about the size of a quarter), that I kind of consider them to be essentially insects. These pictures were taken through our window from a range of about 3 feet, on May 27, 2021.

This is a male, as you can tell from the red patch on his neck. The feathers aren’t red due to a pigment, they form the color more the way that a prism does, by diffraction and canceling out other colors by interference. So in dim or diffuse light they look black, but in direct sunlight the throat is brilliant flaming red. Unfortunately, I didn’t get him in direct sunlight (the feeder is actually in a shady spot), so this is the best I could get.

Ruby-throats are the only kind of hummingbird that come up here to northern Michigan. I understand that there are several species that go up the west coast, and that they are essentially tropical birds that mostly live in Central and South America.

When we first bought our property outside of town, we weren’t aware that hummingbirds came this far north, and thought that they were kind of rare locally. But, one day we were at the plant nursery that used to be in Hancock, where they had some open-ended greenhouses that had hanging Fuchsia baskets. And there, we saw a hummingbird buzzing around, bold as you please, drinking from the fuchsia blossoms! The owner told us that hummingbirds particularly liked those flowers, so we bought a hanging basket and brought it home. And, sure enough, within a few days we had a hummingbird coming to it. So we started putting out a hummingbird feeder with sugar water too, and the hummers turned our house into a regular stop.

And then the next year, right around May 10, we looked out our window, and there we saw an expectant-looking hummingbird hovering in front of our window right where the feeder had been last year. He looked angry that we hadn’t gotten anything out for him yet. So, we quickly filled and put out the feeder, and we’ve had hummingbirds coming around ever since. It has been pretty close to 20 years now, and the normal lifespan of a ruby-throat is about 5 years, so we must be on the fourth or fifth generation of birds by now.

So, the males show up a bit before the females, and one will stake out a territory which includes our feeder. He then finds a good perch where he can watch from. He will then attack any other hummingbird, male or female, that comes around. The males he drives off if he can, although sometimes we will have more than one male hanging about. The females he just harasses, although they keep coming in, dodging him to get drinks of sugar water while his attention is elsewhere. They obviously mate at some point, because right around the middle of July the number of hummingbirds at the feeders suddenly increases by three or four. The new juveniles don’t have the ruby throats, so they all look the same as females.

And they fight. Good lord, do they fight. They constantly zoom and dive-bomb and attempt to spear each other with their beaks. They frequently do this thing where they hover facing each other at a range of about a foot for a couple of seconds, and then they abruptly spiral around one another and zoom into the air, up and out of sight. The males are particularly bad, but even the females and juveniles seem to hate each other with the fury of a thousand blazing suns. The mothers even seem to hate their offspring once they start to fly [1].

They will also fight with other things that come to the feeder, like wasps, hornets, and bees. They duel wit the bald-faced hornets in particular, which are also pretty aggressive and aren’t really all that much smaller than the birds. The birds are quicker and generally run off the hornets after a while, but they are clearly a fairly close match.

They will hang around the feeder until fairly late in the year, right around mid to late October, before they light out for the tropics. I understand that ours most likely head down through Florida to Cuba, and then island-hop to the Yucatan Peninsula for the winter. It is kind of astounding that they have the fat reserves to make that flight, but it seems to work for them. And I guess the flush of excess food that we get up here in the summer (and the relative lack of predators compared to the tropics) makes it worthwhile for them to come north to raise their young.

[1] We have kind of a theory that birds have a sort of “conservation of fury”. We think that all birds have a certain amount of anger against other life-forms, but when the bird is large the effect is diluted throughout their body volume, so that the large birds are relatively mellow. But little birds have the same amount of anger compressed into a smaller volume. And by the time we get down to the size of hummingbirds, there is basically no room left in their little bodies for anything other than blind hatred and fury against all other living things. We see this with Sam’s chickens, too. Her full-size chickens are pretty mellow, but her little bantams have always been little balls of murderous fury.

One Response
  1. Tim permalink
    April 5, 2022

    I wonder if what you call “conservation of fury” is what I term “small-dog syndrome” (and is probably applicable to other animal life as well) where an effective survival strategy is to be fearlessly bold, or else be eaten.

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