As the plethora of neo-tropical migratory bird species return from their tropical winter, perhaps one species in particular garners the attention of more folks in the eastern half of North America than any other, that being the ruby-throated hummingbird.
While 24 species of hummingbirds have been documented in North America, only 17 are breeding species, and the ruby-throated is the only species to breed east of the Mississippi River. While some of these minuscule marvels spend winter in North America, the vast majority opt to travel to more tropical climes for their winter sojourns, and return in spring to the areas where they were born.
As part of their migratory treks, many of these tiny treasures traverse the Gulf of Mexico, a non-stop flight across more than 500 miles of open water which can take 16-24 hours depending upon winds and weather. Some may travel as far as Western Panama during their winter travels, but come spring each one is driven by biological imperatives to return to the area of its birth to reproduce.
The first of these amazing Aves return to our area in mid-March with the first two weeks of April bringing the bulk of returning birds (studies of wintering hummers have shown conclusively the birds that winter here do not breed here, and leave for their own breeding grounds farther north and west.) Males arrive before females, and immediately begin to search for locations that offer them the best habitat not only for their own survival, but that offer the best opportunity to attract the most females as potential mates. Males are fiercely territorial birds during breeding season, and will attempt to evict any other male that may enter its territory. The size of a male's territory is dependent on the quality of the habitat; the abundance of food and shelter, as well as the proximity to as many females as possible.
Females usually start to arrive a few days after males, and engage in their own search for the best available habitat in which to nest and rear young. Females can be as aggressive as males in defending their nesting areas. Nesting sites are normally found in areas with abundant populations of tiny insects. While hummingbirds consume a significant amount of sugar in the form of flower nectar or sugar water from feeders, they cannot survive for long on sugar alone. They must have an abundance of tiny arthropod prey to supply the protein and fats they need, and even moreso to raise successfully raise offspring.