Hummingbirds occur in our area during spring migration and throughout the summer, though less conspicuously.
Hummingbird numbers—and hummingbird sightings—spike at this time of year, though, as young of the year leave their nests and northern breeders begin moving southward.
So, as with so many species of birds, local hummingbird populations are at their peak now. This will last until mid-September, when many of the garden flowers have passed their prime and the birds must go elsewhere to find nectar to sustain themselves.
Enjoy them now, in other words.
Only one hummingbird species, ruby-throated, occurs here regularly. In “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” Robert E. Stewart ranked it “fairly common” in the Turtle Mountains, “uncommon” in the Pembina Hills and near Devils Lake, and “uncommon and local” in the Red River Valley.
This underestimates the frequency of breeding birds, I think. I encounter ruby-throated hummingbirds often enough in summer months to convince me they are breeding here, though I have never found a nest. Honestly, I’ve never tried very hard.
For several years, however, hummingbirds have shown up in my garden, and for at least three years, the number of them has suddenly spiked in early August. Those must be young-of-the year, I figure, though of course I could be wrong.
Nesting hummingbirds are more frequent farther east, in Minnesota’s lake country. This isn’t surprising, since they like being near water.
Less than a handful of other hummingbird species have been recorded in Minnesota and North Dakota.
That makes our region hummingbird poor.
This is a condition we share with most of eastern North America, where only the ruby-throated hummingbird is common.
More species of hummingbirds occur in the West, and particularly in the Desert Southwest, where they show up at desert springs and backyard gardens.
Some of these places have become birdwatching destinations. In fact, it’s a small industry in southeastern Arizona.
The hummingbird family is a large one, with more than 300 species. These are confined to the New World, and mostly to South America. Only 12 species have been reported breeding north of Mexico; only 15 have been recorded in total.
Hummingbirds are remarkable for their size and for their specialization.
Hummingbirds are among the smallest of birds. The ruby-throated hummingbird weighs less than 4 grams, about a fifth of an ounce. That’s not much more than the weight of a penny.
No hummingbird species is much larger than 5 inches in length, although some have splendid tail feathers that push that limit.
Hummingbirds do eat small insects, and I’ve seen them at sap wells that yellow-bellied sapsuckers have created on one of my elm trees. Still, hummingbirds are almost completely dependent on flowering plants, and they are adapted to harvest nectar from tubular flowers. Two of these adaptations are especially obvious. One is the length of the hummingbird’s beak. This is out-sized, long and thin, ideal for probing the depths of a flower. The other is the bird’s ability to hover. It can hold itself in place while it drains nectar from the flower. This is accomplished by a wingbeat so fast it appears as a blur to human eyes. It is the fastest known in the bird world.
These birds are capable of rapid darting from flower to flower. This produces an audible buzz, often the first clue to the presence of hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds are aggressive, often rushing each other and sometimes flying at intruders, including cats and humans.
The birds can fly long distances, as well. Ruby-throated hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico to spend winters in southern Mexico and Central America. They do this unaided, although folklore long has suggested hummingbirds hitch rides on the backs of geese.
It’s not true. The hummingbirds don’t need any help.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds occur as far west of the Rocky Mountains in southern Canada, but in the United States, the range of the species is almost exactly the eastern half of the country, from our area to the Atlantic. The western edge is almost a straight line from here to the mouth of the Rio Grande River in Texas, with a few bulges westward along river valleys.
This may be another reason that late August seems to be the season of hummingbirds in our area. Birds from the North pass south along this line bound for their incredible flight across the Gulf of Mexico—more than 600 miles—and their winter homes.