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Bird Notes | Keeping abreast of hummers

Our ruby-throated hummingbirds may travel considerable distances for their winter vacations.
Our ruby-throated hummingbirds may travel considerable distances for their winter vacations. By Gary Phillips

A few notes on our most amazing avian friends, the hummingbirds.

There are approximately 338 known species of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are only found in the New World, ranging from south-central Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America. The vast majority are only found in the tropics. They’re ecological and evolutionary marvels, having adapted throughout their extensive range to be found in almost every habitat type, from sea level to high mountain areas.

Hummers appear to have driven the evolution of the flower shape of a significant number of flowering plants. They’re highly efficient pollinators (more so than most insects), and over time, their preferred plants’ blooms have evolved a typical tubular shape. Some hummer and flower species have developed such close relationships that a hummingbird species has become the sole or primary pollinator of particular plants. An example is the sword-billed hummingbird of South America and its relationship with plants in the genus Datura. Closer to home, ruby-throated hummingbirds are believed to be the primary or sole pollinator of cardinal flower, a native wildflower found adjacent to area wetlands.

Of the 338 hummer species, only 24 have been documented in North America, and only 17 of those are known to have attempted to breed here. The majority of those species are found west of the Mississippi River, with only the ruby-throated hummingbird breeding in the East. However, overall our ruby-throateds’ range extends roughly from the Gulf Coast northward to Canada along a line through the middle of the country, then shifting a bit farther westward in the territories of our neighbors to the north.

These tiny treasures undertake some epic migratory journeys twice a year. Scaled to their size, hummingbirds migrate the farthest of any of our migratory bird species. A female rufous hummingbird banded during winter in Louisiana was re-encountered the following spring in British Columbia. Another female banded on the Gulf Coast in winter was re-encountered the following spring in south-central Alaska. Mind-boggling physical feats for creatures with a body length of less than 4 inches and a body mass around one-eighth of an ounce.

While our ruby-throateds may not make journeys of such Herculean proportions, they have been documented as far south in winter as Panama. What enables them to make such treks is the availability of appropriate food along their paths. You can help our tiniest feathered friends along their way by keeping a feeder clean and maintained with a solution of one part sugar to four parts water with no other additives. In the bargain, you get to witness the antics of some of nature’s most amazing creatures as they move through a phase of their annual lifecycle.

Reach GARY PHILLIPS at 248-4595 or carolinensis@yahoo.com.