Nature's Helicopters

Early spring is one of my favorite times of the year. The weather is warmer after what seems like a lifetime of cold, gray days, choruses of spring peepers fill the night with sound, and the first spring wildflowers add a touch of color to the landscape. Adding to my enjoyment is the knowledge that my backyard will soon be host to a handful of ruby-throated hummingbirds. These energetic, noisy little birds entertain wildlife enthusiasts across Missouri.

There are 335 species of hummingbirds in the world—all of them in North or South America. Hummingbirds come in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes. The bee hummingbird of Cuba is the smallest bird in the world. It measures about 2.25 inches long from bill tip to tail tip and weighs less than a penny.

The giant hummingbird of South America is the largest hummingbird species. It measures about 8.5 inches long and weighs about three-quarters of an ounce—roughly the size of a large sparrow. The red-billed streamertail of Jamaica has decorative tail feathers that are 6- to 7-inches long by themselves, and the sword-billed hummingbird found in the Andes Mountains of South America is the only bird species known to have a bill that is longer than its body.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only species of hummingbird regularly found in Missouri. They are about 3.75 inches long and weigh about one-tenth of an ounce. Both sexes are bright, golden-green on the back and crown and whitish underneath. Adult males have a shiny, ruby-colored patch of feathers on their throat, while females do not. Young males are similar to females in appearance.

While they are often spotted around flowering plants or hummingbird feeders during migration, ruby-throated hummingbirds prefer areas in or near woodlands or forests during the breeding season. The females build a walnut-sized nest out of plant down, lichens and bud scales, all held together by spider webs. Usually, the nest is located near water. The female, on average, lays two peanut-sized eggs and takes care of all the incubation, as well as the care of the young. The young hummingbirds fledge about 18 days or so after hatching.

As you’d expect, their high activity level and unique flight means that hummingbirds require a lot of energy. In order to deliver oxygen to hardworking muscles, their hearts have to beat fast. A rate of 1,260 beats a minute was recorded in one species of hummingbird.

To fuel their