Hummingbirds Are Getting Scarce – They’re Traveling Back South

We have many kinds of birds in East Texas but hummingbirds are one of the most impressive. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, “hummers” for short, have been here all summer. They winter in Mexico and Central America, and migrating is no small task. To get here, many of them made a nonstop, 18 to 20-hour, 600-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico from the tropics. Now they’re going back. Their marathon flights are made by virtue of their amazing wing-flapping ability. Actually, flapping is a poor word to use for a bird whose wing beats give them their name. “Hummers” they truly are, and if you’ve been very close to them you’ve heard their buzzy, humming sound. Once when I was hanging on a cliff face in Southern California rescuing an injured hiker, one buzzed my brilliant international orange helmet. It sounded like a giant wasp and almost scared me off the rope.

Flying straight and level, hummingbird wings beat a furious 80 times a second!! In a power dive they may reach 200 times a second. Is it any wonder that about all we can see of their moving wings is a blur? Needless to say, their flight muscles use a tremendous amount of energy.

Weighing less than a penny, and only three to three and a half inches long, a hummingbird’s heart rate is a blazing 250 to 1260 beats per minute, or 4 to 21 beats per second, during their waking hours. A human heart beats 55 to 80 times a minute when not exercising, depending on physical condition. In contrast to people, the life processes of sleeping hummingbirds drop sharply, and their pulse plummets to a mere 50 beats a minute. A comparable resting heart rate in a human would be only three beats per minute!

Do you love to snack? Hummers will put you to shame in a feeding contest. They eat about every 10 minutes, and although they feed mostly on plant nectar, their diet also includes very small insects and spiders. Red and orange flowers are their favorites but they’ll investigate anything brightly colored. Possessed of a raging metabolism, hummingbirds require 7000 calories of food a day – about three times what people need. Their needs are supplied mostly by drinking flower nectar through a two-section tongue they form into a tube. (Try rolling your tongue into a tube and slurping soda through it.) Ever see a fat hummingbird? If we exercised anything like we should, we wouldn’t be obese either. Like to snack? Sweat more.

If you want to feed hummers, many stores carry commercial mixes. But you might want to make your own by boiling four parts water to one part sugar – not honey. Boil for two minutes to kill bacteria and mold spores and let the mixture cool completely before filling the feeder. Refrigerate extra sugar water to keep it from spoiling. Food coloring and honey have both been reported to make hummers sick, so avoid using either.

A popular myth says that it is dangerous to feed hummers too late in the season. One late summer day I stopped at a local market to get more hummingbird nectar mix only to find that it was all gone. I was told they would not be stocking any more because “the season was about over and continuing to feed hummers late in the summer would delay their migration and endanger their survival.” Dr. Homer T. Russell, retired SFA Professor of Biology, said this is simply not true.

Hummingbirds are prompted to migrate by day length, and there is absolutely no danger in feeding them too late in the season. As the days become shorter their internal biological clock switches on their travel alarm to tell them when to start traveling. So don’t worry. They won’t linger past their time just because you feed them. The real danger is stopping too early when they are still not ready to migrate and have become dependent on you for liquid energy. So, if you’re feeding them, remember to keep it up for at least three weeks after they appear to be gone.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds apparently are the only kind we have in Deep East Texas. In Texas we’re famous for feeding our house guests well. Hummers are one of our most impressive visitors. Don’t send ‘em home hungry.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.