Hummingbirds hold a special fascination for birdwatchers of all ages. These tiny, brilliantly colored birds weigh no more than a nickel, but still survive two epic seasonal migrations each year. In early spring, the birds gorge themselves on insects and nectar before leaving their South and Central America wintering grounds. Hummingbird males reach North America first, claiming their territories and waiting for females to join them.
Hummingbirds have become known as masters of multidirectional flight. The colorful birds fly forward, backward, up, down and even sideways with blazing speed. A hummingbird might momentarily hover in midair before resuming its flight, sometimes in a completely different direction. Some flight displays appear related to courtship, while other flight behaviors seem to be aggressive in nature, perhaps warning off a rival bird from a favorite food source or territory.
A hummingbird's voracious appetite results from a need to constantly replenish its energy stores. In fact, a hummingbird must eat at 10-minute intervals during the day, with a diet consisting mostly of tree sap, flower nectar and perhaps sugar water from hummingbird feeders. Because a hummingbird also requires muscle-building protein, the tiny bird catches airborne and leaf-sitting insects with its grooved tongue. If a hummingbird locates an especially good food source, such as a large garden full of red tubular flowers, the bird remembers the flowers' location for future meals.
Hummingbirds' fastidious grooming habits help them to maintain their brilliant colors. The birds protect their wings by covering them with natural body oils and use twigs to distribute oils to inaccessible body parts. Hummingbirds also gravitate to water, zipping through garden misters or splashing themselves with birdbath water. After hummingbirds finish their baths and preen themselves dry, they often position their bodies for a sun bath. They face the sun, puff up their bodies and extend their wings, tail feathers and necks to absorb the sun's warmth.
Most female hummingbirds begin building their nests before choosing a mate. The female assembles scraps of lichen and grass, constructs her nest, and secures it with cocoon silk or spider web filaments. Once she lays her eggs, usually two at a time, she incubates them for 12 to 15 days, only flying away briefly to eat. She feeds her hatchlings tiny insects, spiders and nectar, resulting in a diet three times higher in protein than adult hummingbirds eat. After three to four weeks, her fledgling hummingbirds have all their feathers, are nearly the size of their mother, and are ready to fly away.
Based in North Carolina, Felicia Greene has written professionally since 1986. Greene edited sailing-related newsletters and designed marketing programs for the New Bern, N.C. "Sun Journal" and New Bern Habitat ReStore. She earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration from the University of Baltimore.