COLUMBIA — As a full month of spring comes to an end in Columbia, a tiny emerald bird with a red throat is beginning to hover around the budding trees and flowers.
The ruby-throated hummingbird makes annual appearances in Columbia sometime in April, but the first sighting was early this year — April 2.
“They come once a year,” said Holly Seaver, manager of Songbird Station, a supply store for birds. “We used to always say tax day, April 15, was their arrival date in Missouri, but because of the weather changes, things have started to move up a little bit.”
Hummingbird migration patterns
The tiny bird makes a giant trek across countries, breeding in North America and flying to Central and South America for the winter.
“They about fly 5,400 miles,” Seaver said. “They’ll go as far north as Minnesota and Canada, too.”
Males depart Yucatan first, followed about 10 days later by the first females, according to hummingbirds.net.
According to the site, "the migration is spread over a three-month period, which prevents a catastrophic weather event from wiping out the entire species.”
The north migration is completed by late May. Each bird tends to return every year to the place it hatched, even visiting the same feeders, according to the website.
Hummingbirds can fly about 500 miles at a time at about 45-55 miles per hour. They prepare for this long trek by eating insects and nectar, eventually doubling their weight.
“You’ll see an increase in eating at your feeders about mid-August on,” Seaver said. “They start to fill up, bulk up so to speak, for their trip back to South America.”
Seaver said the birds use leaves, string, natural fibers, cotton and hair to build their half-of-a-walnut sized nests. She described their nests as hanging almost like a pine cone hangs from a branch.
According to an article in National Geographic magazine, females lay one to three eggs, incubate for about two weeks, then feed their young for another three weeks. They may have several broods each year.
“Their eggs — they typically lay two — are the size of Tic Tacs,” Seaver said. “They’re tiny.”
Hummingbirds in Missouri
The ruby-throated hummingbird is the most common type of hummingbird seen in Missouri. Others include Rufous, Anna’s, Allen's, broad-tailed, calliope, green violet-ear and black-chinned.
“In Missouri we have the ruby-throated hummingbirds and have had a few reports of the Rufous,” Seaver said.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology characterizes the ruby-throated hummingbird as having a “slender, slightly down curved bill and fairly short wings that don’t reach all the way to the tail when bird is sitting” and as having “bright emerald or golden green on back and crown and gray-white under parts.”
Hummingbirds can “fly straight and fast but can stop instantly, hover, and adjust their position up, down, or backward with exquisite control.”
Typically, they are 3-4 inches long, weigh .07-.21 oz., and have a life span from five to nine years in the wild. Their short legs make walking and hopping impossible. They are able to beat their wings 53 times a second.
The hummingbird diet
Hummingbirds subsist on insects and nectar from flowers, particularly red and orange blossoms, Seaver said.
“Half of a hummingbird’s intake is insects,” she said. “Those they catch on their own because they need that for their protein and minerals and then they get their energy from the nectar and the sugar.”
They like honeysuckle, trumpeter vine and cardinal flowers, where they can stick their beak and tongue inside to suck the nectar, she said.
The birds also get nectar through feeders. The feeders can be purchased with pre-made nectar or you can make your own solution for the birds.
“It's sugar and water, it’s four parts water to one part sugar,” Seaver said. “You have to make sure you boil it to dissolve the sugar in the water for them, and it’s that simple.”
Feeders can be placed almost anywhere outdoors. They can hang from windows or on poles in gardens. A hummingbird wand is a tube-shaped feeder that can be held for the birds to drink from.
Feeders should be brought in when temperatures reach the freezing point.
“It’s kind of always been an old wives' tale that if you leave the feeders out they won’t go south, but that’s not true. They’ll go anyhow,” Seaver said.
“I leave them out until I haven’t seen any for a couple weeks."
Other hummingbird supplies include swings with a bar where they can perch.
“Hummingbirds are very territorial on their feeders," Seaver said. "It's always a good idea to get two feeders. One’s usually the boss, and he tries to keep all the other ones away while he’s eating."
Hummingbirds seem to be popular around Columbia. Besides those who purchase feeders, she has taken a number of calls reporting sightings since the beginning of April.
"They are so tiny, so beautiful and fast, and they’re a friendly bird,” she said. “I have people tell me that they get them to perch on their hand.”