By George Walter

The more we know about hummingbirds, the more they amaze us. They are so different in body, size, and behavior from all other birds, and they’re willing to come right to our window feeder to show us their unique abilities and attributes.

These birds are found only in the Western Hemisphere. There are some 360 species of them making them the second largest of all the bird families. Most are found in the tropical and subtropical areas of Central and South America, but 18 species range into North America, four are seen regularly in Washington, and two spend time in Thurston County.

The first thing one notices with these birds is the humming. It’s caused by the very rapid wing beats in an asymmetrical pattern. Hummingbirds’ flight has been recorded at over 60 wing beats per second. Hummingbirds always travel by flying, incidentally; they have such small weak legs they cannot walk or even hop.

One impressive and unusual flight pattern is hovering. Accomplishing this in variable wind speeds and directions requires the coordination of both wings and the size, shape, and direction of the tail, each separately. No wonder few birds know how.

Most hummingbirds are migratory, meaning they fly from their summer territory to wintering grounds to the south. Eastern North American hummers migrate across the Gulf of Mexico, so they fly nonstop over water for 500-600 miles, flying 10+ hours at 50 mph. That’s quite an accomplishment for a bird that weighs a little over one ounce.

Because of all their unique characteristics, hummingbirds have been studied closely by ornithologists. We know, for example, that they have the highest metabolism rate of all vertebrates. Their typical heart rate is 1,260 beats per minute, and they take 200 breaths per minute. It’s no wonder they are on a constant quest for food.

Thurston's hummingbirds

The two species that are fairly common here in Thurston County are the migratory Rufous Hummingbird and the resident Anna’s Hummingbird. Rufous are here now; they leave by October and return in late February. 

The other two species seen in Washington are Calliope and Black-chinned, who summer in the Cascades and Eastern Washington and are also migratory.

Spiders supply housing

Hummingbird breeding habits are also captivating. The female builds a very small nest made of spider webs and decorated with lichen on top of a small branch. She lays two eggs the size of coffee beans. (Still, they are large considering the size of the mother). The male plays no role in raising the young. The female feeds the young with regurgitated nectar and small insects. The young are ready to leave the nest about 18 days after they hatch. When they fly for the first time, they fly straight up for several feet – an astonishing sight

Not surprisingly, the early life of hummingbirds is fraught with difficulties. But if one survives to return the next spring, it may enjoy a lifespan of 3-5 years, or even longer. The record lifespan is 11 years for a banded Anna’s Hummingbird.

How to attract hummingbirds

You can attract hummingbirds to your house or yard in two ways. The first is to plant flowers rich in nectar - bee balm, columbine, crocosmia, honeysuckle and impatiens are good choices. The second is to put up a feeder, offering sugar water. Most garden and nature stores have inexpensive ones available, and they will include directions and a recipe for the sugar water.

Do not use a red dye. The red plastic flower on the feeder will attract them if they are nearby. In hot weather, wash the feeder and change the sugar water every 2-3 days as it may spoil. Do not be discouraged if none show up right away. There are lots of blooming flowers right now, and your neighbor’s feeder might also be holding their attention.

Some folks keep their feeder up all winter to attract Anna’s. One friend’s hummingbird feeder actually gets more visitors in the winter, when flowers are in short supply.

You might ask how the tiny Anna’s Hummingbird survives in our cold winters. That involves another interesting biological feature of hummingbirds: their ability to go into torpor. This is a hibernation-like state where the birds’ heart rate, breathing and internal temperature are lowered by 50% or more. Then, when it’s warmer, they “wake up.” And, importantly, during warmer spells, there are often small flying insects out – an important protein source for these wintering friends.

George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at [email protected]

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.

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