The Ingenious Architect: How the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Builds Her Nest

The Ingenious Architect: How the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Builds Her Nest

i May 31, 2024 No Comments by

This month, Wake Audubon invites you to join us in a blog-writing experiment. This Bird of the Year article for June was composed by ChatGPT-4 and edited, amended, and fact checked by me, contributing writer Brittany Richards. With mating season in full swing, and our female Ruby-throats preparing to raise their broods, I prompted ChatGPT to write a “blog post about how the Ruby-throated Hummingbird builds her nest.” I changed and added supporting details to ensure factual accuracy and to provide additional information about our fascinating hummingbirds. Please share in the comments any thoughts or feedback you have about this A.I.-assisted post. And if you prefer your articles written entirely by human beings, then you can look forward to next month when we will return to our regularly scheduled programming! 

The Ingenious Architect: How the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Builds Her Nest

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a marvel of nature, not only for its dazzling aerial acrobatics and iridescent beauty but also for its extraordinary nest-building skills. These tiny birds create nests that are intricate and remarkably sturdy, tailored to the survival of their young. Let’s delve into the fascinating process by which the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird constructs her nest, a masterpiece of avian engineering.

Location, Location, Location

The first step in the nest-building process is selecting an appropriate site. Just as every aspect of rearing her chicks is a solo endeavor, the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird chooses the location for her nest all by herself. Typical sites include the slender, horizontal branches (out on the limb, and not in the fork) of deciduous trees such as oak, maple, or sweetgum (but also less frequently in evergreens such as pines), usually 10 to 40 feet above the ground. These locations are typically near a reliable food source and provide ample cover to protect the nest from predators and harsh weather. Rarely will a nest have survived the previous winter and can be refurbished in the spring. But a female may use the same tree, and even the same branch, as previous years to build her new nest. Likewise, in areas where a female raises more than one brood, she may reuse her nests, but may also build a second nest even while still raising chicks in her first! 

Female sitting on a slender branch. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

Female sitting on a slender branch. Photo by Bob Oberfelder

Gathering Materials

Once a suitable site is chosen, the female begins gathering materials. The construction of the nest involves a variety of natural materials that are both lightweight and durable. Key components include plant down, spider silk, and lichens. Plant down, sourced from dandelions, thistles, and other plants, forms the soft inner lining of the nest, providing a comfortable and warm environment for the eggs. Spider silk is a critical material, used to bind the nest together. It offers remarkable elasticity and strength, allowing the nest to stretch and accommodate the growing chicks. Lichens, collected from tree bark, are used to camouflage the nest, making it less visible to predators

Building the Foundation

The nest construction starts with the foundation. The female uses her tiny beak and feet to weave the spider silk into a flexible base that will attach securely to the chosen branch. This initial phase is crucial, as it ensures that the nest is anchored firmly and can withstand the elements. The spider silk’s adhesive properties are especially valuable here, creating a sturdy but pliable base.

Crafting the Cup

With the foundation in place, the hummingbird begins to build the cup-shaped structure that will house her eggs. This process involves meticulous layering and weaving. The female alternates between adding plant down and spider silk, molding the materials with her body to shape the nest. She uses her body as a mold, pressing against the sides to form a perfect cup shape. This stage requires incredible patience and precision, as the nest must be both deep enough to keep the eggs secure and compact enough to conserve heat.

Camouflaging and Final Touches

After the basic structure is completed, the female focuses on camouflage and insulation. She meticulously applies lichens to the outer surface of the nest. The lichens blend seamlessly with the bark of the tree, rendering the nest nearly invisible to predators. This camouflage is crucial for the survival of the eggs and, later, the chicks. Additionally, the female may use more spider silk to reinforce the nest and ensure it remains securely attached to the branch.

The final touches include adding extra plant down to the inner cup, creating a soft and insulated environment for the eggs. The entire process can take up to 10 days to complete.. Despite the small size of the hummingbird, the resulting nest is a marvel of engineering, typically about the size of a walnut (meaning just about 2 inches across and 1 inch deep!), yet strong enough to protect and nurture the next generation of these tiny birds. The nest, with its elastic properties, expands as the chicks grow, providing a secure home until they are ready to fledge.

Finding a Hummingbird Nest

Because they are so tiny and well camouflaged, a Ruby-throat’s nest is usually very difficult to spot. But you may know that nest building is underway nearby if you see a female hovering around the eaves of your home collecting spider webs. In addition to planting native pollinators and providing a nectar feeder, another way to attract hummingbirds to your yard is to leave spider webs undisturbed so they are available for hummingbird nests! And remember, if you are lucky enough to find a nest, it is illegal to disturb or damage it, so leave it be. Even after nesting season is over, it is best to leave the nest alone and admire it without touching it. 

Conclusion

The nest-building process of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of nature. Each nest is a unique creation, perfectly adapted to its environment and crafted with a blend of skill and instinct. Through her diligent work, the female hummingbird ensures the safety and comfort of her offspring, contributing to the continuation of her species in a world full of challenges. If you ever spot a tiny, camouflaged nest high in the trees, take a moment to appreciate the remarkable effort and craftsmanship that went into its creation.

Two videos of Ruby-throats building their nests:

From the Michigan Nature Association

From the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission