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Maryland’s Ruby-throated Gems: Colorful Hummingbird Makes Annual Trek

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Loving Bee Balm by Steve Brynes

Photo by Steve Brynes

Weighing just about the same as a penny, the mighty ruby-throated hummingbird makes a 1,000-plus mile journey each year. It travels from Central America back to the eastern United States in the spring to breed. The familiar hum of its flight and the flash of green are a welcome sight in gardens.

We are fortunate to have ruby-throated hummingbirds return to Maryland year after year. They are the only species of hummingbird known to breed in our area, though five other hummingbird species have been documented in Maryland.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are iridescent green with white bellies. Their common name refers to the brilliant reddish-orange coloring on the throat of mature males during the breeding season. Females, in contrast, have a grayish throat with white underparts and green coloring on the upper body. Juveniles and non-breeding birds look similar to females. However, adult females have white outer corners on their tails while adult, non-breeding males do not.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds by Dean Newman

Photo by Dean Newman

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are migration marvels. These pint-sized birds can fly 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico without stopping. To prepare for such a feat, the ruby-throated hummingbirds increase their body weight by as much as 35-40% in as little as four days! Generally, their northward migration begins in late February, but we often do not see our first hummingbirds in Maryland until April. Males are the first to arrive and they establish breeding territories as the females are heading north. While courting, the male performs a spectacular aerial dance above females. During this dance, he prominently displays his glistening ruby throat in an effort to attract her attention. If successful, they will mate and she will take over the duties of nesting and caring for the young.

Unlike many other hummingbird populations in North America, ruby-throated hummingbird populations have steadily increased from 1966 to 2014. The hummingbirds can be attracted to backyards by providing food and shelter resources. It is also important to protect them from hazards like outdoor cats.

Chart showing plant suggestionsHow to Help Hummingbirds
Provide Plants: Hummingbirds can flap their wings more than 50 times a second and burn a lot of energy in the process. One of the best ways to help local hummingbirds is to provide nectar via plants. In addition, hummingbirds eat insects and spiders. Spiders are of particular importance as their webbing is crucial for hummingbird nest construction. By planting native plants, you can provide both nectar and insects for hummingbirds to dine upon. Some native and non-native plant ideas are shown to the right.

Provide Nectar: Another food source is a nectar feeder. Mix ¼ cup of refined white sugar with a boiling cup of water until the sugar is dissolved. Let it cool and then add it to your feeder. Avoid raw sugars and honey as both can be harmful to hummingbirds. Skip the red dyes and, if wasps are an issue, choose feeders without yellow attachments. Be sure to clean your feeder, at least twice a week in the summer, with warm water and a mild vinegar solution. Feeders with mold and bacteria can be deadly to hummingbirds.

Provide Water: Add a bird bath or another water feature to your yard. Be sure to clean it regularly.

Provide Cover: Adding shrubs and trees to your yard will provide places for them to raise their young, as well as provide protection from potential predators. If you trim your trees in the spring, do a quick sweep of the area to make sure no hummingbird nests are accidentally disturbed.

Keep It Safe: Window strikes can be deadly for hummingbirds. If you have an issue with hummingbirds hitting windows; consider adding a window treatment and/or moving your feeder within three feet of your window. Keep cats indoors to prevent them from attacking hummingbirds and their young.

Reduce or Skip Pesticides: Hummingbirds don’t derive all of their energy from nectar. They also need to consume protein and fat from insects and spiders. Hummingbirds have been found to accumulate pesticides in their bodies by consuming treated insects and plants. The impacts could be problematic.

Report Nests: If you are fortunate enough to find nesting hummingbirds, consider reporting them to the Maryland-DC Breeding Bird Atlas and/or Cornell’s NestWatch program. This information helps researchers track nesting trends in our region.

Kerry Wixted is the education and outreach specialist with the department’s Wildlife and Heritage Service. Article appears in Vol. 23, No. 2 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2020.