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Journey with Nature

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Though hummingbirds are present for a short time in Indiana, many Hoosiers plan their whole garden around these wonderfully tiny and colorful creatures. There are over 340 species found in the Western Hemisphere (none are found in the Eastern Hemisphere), but only one can be found in Indiana. 

Every year starting in April to around the end of September, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird makes its way back to our great state. Like most hummingbirds, this small bird makes a big statement with its iridescent coloring. Ruby-throated hummer's most distinguishing characteristic is given away in its name, but only for the males. Like most species of hummingbirds, the females are not as showy or brightly colored as their male counterparts. However they do share an emerald-colored back like the male, but will have a white breast and throat.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is one of the most common hummers found in the States as it has the largest breeding ground of its kind. As the months grow warmer, it will travel over 4,000 miles from where it winters in Costa Rica to make it back to their ancestral nesting sites in the eastern half of the United States. During migration, hummers fly 18-20 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico and losing half their entire body weight. Once these small beauties are back in Indiana, they're heading straight to the flowers and feeders.

Nectar and Hummingbirds

Nectar derives from the Greek nektar and means "drink of the gods." It is also the sweet liquid produced by flowers that attract hummingbirds. Hummers feed through a long, "W"-shaped tongue that darts into the flower's petals for nectar. Its brushy tongue also grabs insects trapped in flowers or while in flight.

Nectar is an important food source for the hummingbird as it takes a lot of high-energy food to support its level of activity and fast metabolism. Hummingbirds are incredible fast and active. It will beat its wings anywhere between 60 - 200 times per second with its heart beating up a little more than 1,200 beats per second. It rarely rests during the day, spending so much time in the air that its feet are too weak for them to walk In order to survive, a hummer mush eat its own weight in nectar and protein-rich insects every day.

Nectar can be gathered from a variety of flowers, shrubs and feeders found in natural areas, gardens and backyards. If planting or putting out feeders, do so strategically as hummingbirds are territorial and will terrorize other birds that will go near "their" plant. Plants that are pollinated by hummingbirds are those that are less noticed by bees and other pollen-gathering insects, so there is not much competition between other pollinators. Many of these species tend to be red (as are most hummingbird feeders) and facing downward for easier access while the hummers feed in mid-flight.

A diverse selection of plants overlapping blooming seasons will provide nectar to visiting hummingbirds over the long growing season. Purdue University's Forestry and Natural Resources offers information on what species to plant to attract hummingbirds; a few of these species are listed below.

  • Annuals - varieties of pinks; zinnia; snapdragons; scarlet sage and jewelweed;
  • Perennials - bergamot; cardinal flower; columbine; fire-pink, foxglove; phlox; red iris; red morning glory and scarlet sage;
  • Shrubs - native species of rhododendrons and deciduous azaleas; rose mallow; pepperbush;
  • Vines - trumpet creeper; coral honeysuckle and passionflower;
  • Trees - flowering trees like the tulip poplar and Ohio buckeye.

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