Klemek Column: Hummingbirds of the Northland
I have to wonder about ruby-throated hummingbirds this summer here in northern Minnesota. What flowers—any flowers—are they seeking out for nectar? In my neck of the woods, few forest and prairie flowers bloomed, and those that did were not very abundant or especially healthy looking. A hummingbird favorite, jewelweed (sometimes called touch-me-nots) are nowhere to be found, or at least their gorgeous orange-colored blooms. The season of plenty has been severely compromised because of a season of drought.
And yet . . . hummingbirds are buzzing my feeders with as much gusto and abundance as any other year. As usual, the first hummingbird arrived at my feeders on Mother’s Day weekend. Always a lone male, he was soon joined by other males, and of course regular fighting and chasing. Not long after the arrival of male hummingbirds, females showed up. And then more fighting and chasing.
At one point this past spring I was enjoying observing 25 to over 30 hummingbirds drinking sugar water from my four hummingbird feeders and one oriole feeder. Later, when pair-bonding began and courtship flight dances commenced, hummingbird ranks thinned out a bit until only a handful of pairs were left.
There’s always a lull at my feeders when the adults are busy raising nestlings. The assumption is that the parents are too busy capturing and feeding insects to their offspring and so don’t have a lot of time to spend at the feeders, although they still do, but not as much. A couple weeks of feeding youngsters is then followed by the young birds fledging, which, true to form, a mass return to the feeders by the parents along with their young in tow.
So for the past couple weeks or more, I’m once again regularly mixing jugs of sugar water to fill empty feeders that are drained dry by hungry hummers. And while it’s delightful having hummingbirds around every season and the chore of mixing food and cleaning and filling feeders is ongoing, just as soon as they leave in mid-September I miss them almost immediately. After all, hummingbirds are with us here in the Northland for just four months out of the year.
Of the 15 species of hummingbirds that breed and nest in North America, only one hummingbird routinely visits flowers and feeders east of the Great Plains. That of course is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Each spring, bird enthusiasts from all over Minnesota wait in anticipation for the arrival of these bee-like birds.
Aptly named because of the male's metallic red throat patch, the species’ other colors are equally as dazzling, especially when the sunlight strikes the bird just so. Green metallic above, white below its red throat, and dark tail feathers, the diminutive hummingbird is a sight to behold. He’s flashy and handsome and all dressed up to impress female hummers and intimidate would-be male rivals.
Barely longer than three inches and weighing scarcely two grams, the featherweight ruby-throated hummingbird does just fine for its size. Migration is a great example of this. They cover massive distances by crossing the Gulf of Mexico, nonstop, and fly to various locations throughout the eastern half of the United States, including parts of southern Canada, on their northward migration each spring.
Few other birds please us more than ruby-throated hummingbirds. So easy to attract, so remarkable to view, and so interesting to learn about, it’s no wonder they’re on top of the list of those birds most frequently sought after by birders and bird feeding enthusiasts. And why not? What other bird can perform the aerial stunts they do at our feeders or approach as close to us as they do?
Indeed, the ruby-throated hummingbird, Minnesota’s smallest wild bird, here for only a short window of time each season everywhere in our state—even on secluded islands deep in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—is a bird of uncommon tenacity, endearing curiosity, and unending grace and beauty, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.