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Hummingbirds in July

i Jun 29, 2024 No Comments by

The blisteringly hot month of July does not seem like the best time to raise young, especially if you are a bird, working tirelessly every day to defend your nest and find food for your helpless chicks. The summer heat isn’t ideal for baby birds either. Young birds that have just learned to fly must navigate the world outside their nest and be wary of numerous dangers. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any harder, let’s consider the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Weighing only 0.11 ounces, this tiny bird faces additional challenges in raising its young during the summer months due to its small size and high energy levels.

The hummingbird lifestyle.

Let’s start by exploring the hummingbird’s lifestyle. These small creatures have incredible adaptations, allowing them to fly in all directions, hover, and reach inside flowers. Each adaptation helps hummingbirds access nectar, their main food source. Nectar is abundant, with bees and butterflies being the only competitors. This ability to drink nectar is advantageous for birds, providing them with an untapped food source. However, this efficient flight ability comes with a significant drawback: the need to eat every 15 minutes. Hovering is energy-intensive, so hummingbirds can only go without food for about an hour, usually feeding every 10-15 minutes. This demanding lifestyle is challenging, as hummingbirds often visit over 1,000 flowers daily. Now, imagine trying to visit all these flowers while also caring for chicks.

A male Ruby Throated hummingbird perched on a branch (look at that bright red neck!)

The hot summer sun, combined with the constant need to refuel, makes raising young even harder for hummingbirds. Yet, these bright little birds manage to raise new generations. So, how do they do it?

Stage 1: Eggs and Hatchlings. 

The first step in raising chicks is building a nest. Female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds construct small cup-shaped nests from twigs, mosses, and lichens. These nests are narrow but deep enough to hold a few chicks. The female lays 1-3 eggs and keeps them warm until they hatch. Once the eggs hatch, the mother must feed them and keep them warm since they are featherless. The hatchlings eat almost as much as their parents and need food every 20 minutes. This means the mother must feed herself and two hatchlings back at the nest, requiring her to leave the nest around 200 times a day. Exhausting, right?

Stage 2: Nestlings and Fledglings. 

A hummingbird chick’s diet mainly consists of nectar but also includes small insects. The chicks need this nutrition because, in a few weeks, they will learn to zip around the sky like their mother. Around this stage is when the hatchlings begin to develop pin-like feathers and small fuzzy down. These birds are now known as nestlings. Nesting mothers hunt more insects than usual to ensure the nestlings hit their protein goals. Even though these nestlings are currently helpless, the one thing they can do is eat. These tiny pink creatures react to the wind of their mother’s wings which is how they know it’s feeding time. After about three weeks of development, the nestlings grow from helpless beings that require warmth and food from their mother into fully feathered birds. These young birds are known as fledglings. The chicks can now regulate their own body temperature and move around in the areas near their nest. Although the tails of these fledglings are still short, they now have the ability to fly. Although they can fly physically, they still need to learn how to take off into the air. Around this stage in hummingbird development, it is common to find fledglings on twigs and the ground away from their nest. 

Female ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a branch. 

The one thing that makes this process of raising a chick from egg to adult seem a little easier is that it lasts a short 3 weeks. In these 3 weeks, an egg can develop into a fully functioning bird that can visit thousands of flowers daily. 

Stage 3: Learning life skills.

Although the chicks are fully developed, the mother bird’s job is not done yet. Most female hummingbirds look after their fully grown chicks a week after they fledge in order to ensure their protection. It is at this time when the mother hummingbird teaches the chicks how to fly, catch insects mid-air, and the best places to find nectar. If all goes well, the hummingbird chicks will learn skills that will set them up for a life in the skies. Just remember, in one year, these very chicks will have to put in the same hard work into their children, just like their mother once did for them!

Female Ruby-throated hummingbird hovering and drinking nectar. 

Now that we see the hard work mother ruby-throated hummingbirds put in while taking care of their young, it is important to remember to treat these beautiful animals with respect. If you ever come across a nesting hummingbird, be sure not to disturb it since you never want to cause extra stress on an already stressed mother. If you want to photograph the cute fledglings, be sure to take pictures from a distance and avoid scaring adults and young. Do not remove any branches concealing the nest and avoid walking around the nest a lot, since this can attract predators to the nest. Around this time, female hummingbirds also come to feeders more often. To ensure proper health and safety for these hard working parents, never use honey, corn syrup, or powdered sugar in your hummingbird feeders, since these food sources can cause dangerous fungal infections. 

Female Ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder (make sure to never use honey !) 

Conclusion. 

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are always a wonderful sight to see in any backyard. Whether it be the iridescent red throats of males or their wonderful acrobatics in the air, seeing these unique creatures at a feeder is a great feeling. Now, after learning about the dedication mother hummingbirds have toward their chicks gives us a whole new reason to love these already lovable little birds. 

All images were taken by Bob Oberfelder. 

 

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