Winged Jewels of Florida: The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is the Only One That Breeds in the StateMay 07, 2021 03:17PM ● By WILLIAM R. COX
Ten species of hummingbirds have been observed in Florida. They are the smallest birds and have the swiftest wingbeats at speeds of 60 to 80 beats per second. They are also the only birds capable of flying backward. The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is the only one that breeds in eastern North America and Florida.
Some ruby-throated hummingbirds remain in south and central Florida all year, while others leave for Central America in October. These migrants return to Florida in early March when tubular flowers are blooming. They select flower colors of red, orange and yellow to feed on nectar. I have observed them in my own yard in Fort Myers feeding on the flowers of the pink powder puff tree.
The males make the return trip to Florida first, followed shortly thereafter by the females. Nesting season occurs mostly from northern to central Florida from April to July.
Other species of hummingbirds have been observed in Florida. These include the Bahama woodstar, black-chinned, buff-bellied, Cuban emerald and rufous.
The ruby-throated hummingbird is only 3.2-3.7 inches long with a 14- to 19-mm-long bill. The tail is double rounded to forked. The adult male has a black chin and face with a solid ruby-red throat. If the male is not facing the sun, the throat appears black. The ruby iridescent color is produced by the microscopic structure of the feather’s surface, which amplifies one color of light.
The colors of male hummingbird throats are the most spectacular and refined colors in nature. The males also have green upperparts and whitish undersides. Females and immatures are white below with white-tipped tail and green upperparts. Immature males mirror adult females but develop some red throat spots by September. Some immature males may also have golden upperparts instead of green. Sides and flanks of all are often washed buff.
Its western counterpart, the black-chinned hummingbird, can be confused with the ruby-throated. The black-chinned adult male has a black throat with blue-violet lower band. The immature male has black-violet spots on the throat, while the adult female rarely has these spots. The black-chinned strongly pumps its tail, while the ruby-throated keeps its tail still.
Habitat for the ruby-throated hummingbird includes agricultural environments, hardwood forest, mesic hammocks, mixed pine, pine flatwoods, sandhills and urban areas. In urban areas it selects places with brightly colored flowers or hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds have a high metabolism rate and need to feed constantly all day. I have observed hummingbirds returning to feeding stations every 30 minutes or so. In between they feed on flowers for nectar, small spiders and nectar-feeding insects.
Approximately 60 percent of the hummingbird’s diet consists of invertebrates that provide fats and proteins. While feeding, it dips its long slender tongue into the feeder for sugar water or the flower for nectar. When the tongue is pulled back into the bill, the nectar is squeezed out and swallowed. The tongue automatically dips back into the flower to absorb more nectar; this is repeated 20 times per second.
The hummingbird is a commensal feeder, meaning members of one species assist the foraging of another. For example, the hummingbird will feed on sap in the ring of holes created around a tree by the yellow-bellied sapsucker. I have observed this in south Florida, although this type of feeding is normally conducted in northern states.
To get through a night without food a hummingbird becomes torpid: its body temperature drops from 104 degrees to 60 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Its breathing briefly stops, and its heart rate drops to less than 50 beats per minute from the daytime rate of 500-1,000 beats. It returns to normal at daylight as its heart rate and breathing increase. Body temperature increases as the hummingbird begins to generate heat by vibrating its wings.
The ruby-throated hummingbird builds a tiny deep-cup nest (2.0 inches wide by 1.5 inches deep) of lichen, leaves and spider silk, placed on a horizontal limb 10-20 feet above water or ground. Two pea-sized eggs are incubated for 11-14 days, and the young birds fledge in 14-28 days. The female does all the feeding. Each female produces two to three broods per year.
You can help hummingbirds by purchasing perennial plants recommended for hummingbirds in your area. Placing a hummingbird feeder in your yard also helps.
William R. Cox has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.