Bird Town Pennsylvania: Thank you, Mr. Ruby-throat, for taking the time to be interviewed today. We’re aware of how incredibly busy you are.
Ruby-throated Hummer: You really aren’t that aware, unless you can imagine yourself running constantly here and there to get each item for every one of your meals at 9 miles per hour, every day of your life. And when I say here and there, I mean sometimes you need to snatch food at 1,000 or more different locations in a single day—so you have to do each snatch really, really fast.
BTP: Wow, that takes a lot of energy—I feel tired just thinking about it. What do you mean by 1,000 or more different locations?
Ruby: Sometimes I eat pollen and nectar from one or even two thousand different flowers a day. That’s the only way I can get enough calories to keep up my body weight and also the only way to keep my wings beating so fast that they hum.
BTP: And exactly how fast is that?
Ruby: Well, when I’m hovering I do up to 80 wingbeats per second.
BTP: Per second?
Ruby: Yes, per second. But I really don’t like to have to repeat myself. I don’t have time for that!
BTP: Rumor has it that you’re not the friendliest of birds. Is that unfair?
Ruby: I’m not going to pretend I’m friendly. I’m downright feisty about defending my flower-territories — I’ll swoop-harass or even poke any creature who gets between me and my food. I have to! You humans eat about 2 ½ pounds of food a day. If you burned as much energy as I do, every day you’d have to eat and burn off the calories equal to 370 pounds of potatoes. You’d really defend access to whatever potato field you had access to, because if someone took it from you, you’d starve very quickly. So yeah, I’m not friendly. It’s like your Shakespeare guy said, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” That applies to us male hummers even more than to our females. You just can’t be sentimental about hummer attitudes. If you don’t think we’re friendly, all I can say is “whatever.” But … rumor has it among us hummers that you humans do like us because of how handsome we are.
BTP: Oh yes, we do! People think of hummers as jewelry in flight—the way your colors pop and shimmer!!!
Ruby: Well, my mates are less colorful so predators won’t be as likely to find them on their nests.
But me, I’m the fastest and most beautiful kind of hummingbird east of the Mississippi River.
BTP: But aren’t you the only kind of hummingbird east of the Mississippi?
Ruby: Details, details! Anyway, if you humans like me, help me out. My life is already really challenging, so do this: keep your house cats away from me. They’re my number one predator. And grow flowers that I like —they’re my number one desire!!!! I’ll flash my handsome wings your way, and I’ll pollinate all kinds of plants for you, too. All that pollination, that’s worth a lot to gardeners.
BTP: About your wings—we’ve heard you can fly in every direction and change directions super fast.
Ruby: Yeah, I’m the best. I can fly backwards—hummers are the only birds that can do that! And for short distances I can even fly upside down.
BTP: You’re a jeweled circus acrobat!
Ruby: Who is constantly hungry.
BTP: Do you ever rest?
Ruby: Oh, yeah. I rest every night, and when it’s chilly, I go into a state you humans call torpor. When I’m flying, my heart beats up to 1,260 times per minute. When you’re running your heart does maybe 160 beats per minute. I have you way, way beat with the beats. But when I go into torpor, my whole body enters a sort of temporary hibernation, and my heart beats can be as low as 50 per minute. My body temperature goes way down, I burn far fewer calories, and I’m prime bait for cats because I’m groggy and slow and “out of it.”
BTP: Do you rest up before you migrate to Central America?
Ruby: Before I migrate, the main thing I do differently is get myself really plump. I need to store energy in my body for the long-haul trip.
BTP: How do you manage to get so tanked up?
Ruby: I already told you, I’m really into flowers!
BTP: OK, we get the point.
Ruby: You have something against the shape of my beak? You wanna “get” my beak? I wouldn’t recommend that.
BTP: Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. Um, uh, I didn’t mean to offend you. … Can we talk about your migration?
Ruby: If you’re quick about it.
BTP: We’ve heard that in autumn some rubies migrate along the U.S. Gulf Coast to Mexico and Central America—and then back again in the spring—and that they stop to eat along the way. But we’ve also heard that some of you just fly straight across the gulf itself, over open waters non-stop for 20 hours. Is that true?
Ruby: Yep. That’s what I personally do, twice a year.
BTP: You must be completely exhausted when you reach land.
Ruby: And hungry!
BTP: Hungry is the theme of your life.
Ruby: Finally you get it. Plant me some flowers!
BTP: Are you hungry right now? Maybe a little “hangry”?
Ruby: I’m always hungry when I’m awake.
BTP: And always a bit fierce … And always incredibly handsome.
Ruby: Yup, ferocious and gorgeous.
BTP: Have people accused you of being a show-off?
Ruby: Accuse? No worries, I don’t mind the label. It’s like your poet guy Walt Whitman said, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself”—because I have to be a show-off. No male hummingbird who doesn’t have a show-off personality stands a chance with our females. Female hummers are PICKY about which males they’ll bother to pay any attention to. You can barely believe what I have to go through to have a lady friend in my life!
BTP: Please tell us about it.
Ruby: OK, so there are my scintillating feathers—gotta have those! But these ladies, they also want proof that a male ruby’s flying skills are top notch before they’ll give us the time of day. So to get a lady to notice me, I have to do ridiculously fast dive bombs from high above a gal, heading straight down at top speed until I’m close to her, and at the very last split second I’ve got to pivot up and away from her—and then do it all over again, and again.
Ruby: You’d find it cool to see. … Unfortunately, my courtship gets cut short by human desires for courtship.
BTP: How’s that?
Ruby: There’s this belief that keeping a dead hummingbird can give humans luck with romantic partners. There’s a whole trade in dead hummers as love charms.
BTP: How awful! And totally illegal!
Ruby: Yes, very illegal. Hummingbirds are protected species under the United States Code of Federal Regulations, Title 50, Chapter 1, Part 10, Subpart 13. There are even international agreements that protect us. We hummers have rights!
BTP: You’re the first bird we’ve ever had citing federal regulations and treaties to us. … What can we do to stop that trade?
Ruby: Don’t buy hummer amulets. Even though they’re illegal in the U.S., they get sold here anyway. Tell humans that killing hummingbirds will not attract partners for them. It’s not sexy to be a killer or to buy dead bodies. The number one thing to attract and keep a human mate, I hear, is just to be helpful and nice to them—and it’s easier than dive-bombing!
BTP: We’ll keep all that in mind! … Thank you so much for your time. Any last thing you’d like to say to us?
Ruby: Don’t judge my attitudes; evolution gave me a lifestyle that requires me to be the way I am in order to survive. Keep admiring me. Check out this movie about how amazing we hummers are, since I’ve hardly begun to tell you all the ways we can impress you! And help us out. I made time for this interview to get two main suggestions to bounce and bounce around your brains: keep house cats away from me, and plant the flowers I like. And then consider my presence in your town a gift.
BTP: A great gift! We appreciate your self-confidence and spunk. We want to keep you safe and well-fed. So thanks again for sharing your thoughts with Bird Town PA!
Want to learn more about hummers?
National Geographic has an excellent article on the illegal trade in hummingbirds.
Fastest Things on Wings: Hummingbirds in Hollywood, by T. Masear, is an uplifting personal narrative full of warmth, humor, and suspense. Masear’s true stories bring readers into the world of the hummingbird hotline-rescue-rehabilitation-release program that since 2008 has responded to over 20,000 phone calls from citizens reporting injured or orphaned hummingbirds needing help.
About Hummingbirds: A Guide for Children, by Cathryn and John Sill, has won numerous awards for its beautiful illustrations and clear explanations for young children about hummers’ fascinating lifestyles. Additional information at the end of the book is presented for older children and adults.
Christine Du Bois – Buxbaum, Ph.D., Lansdowne Bird Town Coordinator of the Lansdowne Bird Town
Cropped version of “Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) (6383396925)” by Magnus Manske, Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0
“Ruby-throated hummingbird on nest” by Lorie Shaull, Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0