Nature Observer Journal

An Endless Journey

speculations on the life of a hummingbird

Chuck Tague


    The sweet fragrance of Black Locust blossoms filled the early June woods as he intently watched a female tanager carry a twig through fresh oak leaves.   A hummingbird zipped past the man’s ear.  He whipped his head toward the familiar buzz too slowly to see the burnished green flash dart into the Slippery Elm.

Black Locust blossoms

    The female Ruby-throat landed without slowing as she approached the inch thick slanted branch.  In her long, needle-shaped beak she carried a bud scale from a nearby White Oak.  Through the fall and winter the concave, shiny oval had sheltered cells that two weeks before burst into leaves, flowers and twigs.  Now the bud scale would be the last addition to the outer wall of the hummingbird’s nest.

    With a strand of spider silk she carefully attached the scale to the soft mound that saddled the branch, and wove it in place with only her beak.  She alone worked on the nest, which was slightly larger than a quarter, for almost a week.

Hummingbirds use spider silk to build their nest

    She set out for more material, stopping at a cluster of locust flowers on the way.  Her short tail swaying, wings whirring, she hovered in place in front of a white blossom.  She extracted nectar by flicking her fork-tipped tongue in a rapid thirteen per second cadence.  Jerking back only far enough to remove her beak from the flower, the hummer shifted down and to the left to examine another blossom.  Pivoting in place, she grabbed a fly out of the air, roping it in with her long prehensile tongue.  She repositioned, inserted her beak and extracted the nutritious sucrose solution from the base of the corolla. 

   Weighing no more than a penny, about three and a half grams or a tenth of an ounce, she quickly filled up then zipped across the thicket to the edge of a stream.  Here she gathered a beakful of down from the willows and returned to the elm.  Using the willow fluff along with fuzz from the underside of Sycamore leaves, she cushioned the inside of the nest.  This task completed she plucked flakes of gray-green foliose lichen from the bark of the elm and used them to adorn the outside of her creation.

    The man returned along the trail through the thicket and stopped to search for the tanager.  The hummer zipped off towards the locust trees.  He caught a glimpse of movement and scanned the limb with his binoculars.  He passed over the unremarkable structure without pausing, assuming it to be just another knob on the limb if he noticed it at all.

    The next morning the hummingbird fought the chill by perching in the sunlight on top of a dead cherry that emerged from the thicket.  Another hummingbird crossed the stream and headed for the Wild Columbines on the rocks.  More like a missile than a bird, she intercepted the intruder, a male Ruby-throat.  She zigged and zagged after him into the woods.  Now out of her territory, she perched beside a gap in the canopy.  The male reversed direction and cut a wide arc in front of her.  First an aggressor, then a fugitive, now a suitor, he adjusted his position between the sun and the eyes of the female.  He swung from high to low to high in the perfect configuration to show off his brilliant throat patch, then retraced his arc several times  -- each with increased speed, noise and vigor.  Finding the fury and sound both repugnant and irresistible, the female retreated towards her thicket.  The male pursued.  She let him catch her and they crashed into the jewelweeds on the stream bank.

Wild Columbine

    She laid an egg about the size of the nail on a child’s smallest finger (12.9 x 8.5mm).  It was elliptical and slightly pointed on one side; pure white but not shiny.  It fit snugly into one half of her soft nest.  The following day she laid another.  Incubation took about fourteen days.  The two chicks hatched and her work began.  From sunrise to sunset she buzzed constantly around the thicket, the stream bank and the nearby woods.  She fueled herself with so much nectar a white pollen mark formed on her forehead.  She snagged insects, pilfered the contents of spider webs, even grabbed a spider or two, and carried the small animals to the nest.

    Back at the elm she inserted the insects and spiders deep into the throats of the two hungry nestlings.  The babies grew rapidly.  After 18 days in the nest, the youngsters gained their full size, a little more than three inches, including a long beak, a short tail and a body not much larger than a child’s thumb.  They stretched their wings and flapped with increasing strength.  Their flaps built to a whirring buzz and they lifted off for the first time.  A life-long journey began.

    For several days they followed their mother to nectar filled jewelweed on the bank and bee balm by the stream.  Soon they could live on their own.  They were no longer tolerated in the thicket.  Their mother, who gave them so much care and attention, chased the two fledglings down the valley to a thicket of their own.

    They explored the woods and brushy edges, grape tangles and stream banks, sharpening the skills they would need to survive.  They learned the trees, the various colors and textures of the bark.  They examined the lichens, vines and mysterious rows of holes in the maples.

Bee Balm

    They were attracted to the Bee Balms, Spotted Jewelweed and Cardinal Flowers, although every time they approached the Cardinal Flower a male hummingbird would swoop down and bump them hard.  They discovered the clues to the best flowers; bright red petals that insects ignored and long tubular shapes that prevented bees and butterflies from reaching the nectar.  They learned that thistles yielded some nectar but attracted insects they needed for protein and other nutrients not available from flowers.  They learned to warm themselves in the morning sun.  They encountered other birds in the woods: the curious chickadees, upside down nuthatches, Wood Thrushes with a flute-like song, cardinals and catbirds that patrolled the thickets, chattering robins, yellow-throats skulking though the jewelweeds and bright blue Indigo Buntings that sang couplets to the sun.

Cardinal Flower

    A Belted Kingfisher regularly scouted the steam, occasionally hovering, with great difficulty compared to the hummingbirds, over the one deep pool.  A tom turkey strutted, fanned and gobbled in the clearing.  The Mourning Dove “cooed”, the Hooded Warbler chanted its crisp phrases, the Red-bellied Woodpecker chortled and drummed and the Red-eyed Vireo sang incessantly.

Belted Kingfisher

    A Sharp-shinned Hawk took a vicious swipe at one youngster, but she easily dodged the much bigger bird.  Shortly after, she lost track of her nest mate, but she learned to recognize the other dangers; the Black Snake, the Raccoon, the Bull Frog.


    The young female fell into the routine of the summer woods.  Life was good, living was easy but something peculiar began to happen.  One morning she woke up at the same time she did every day of her short life but no reassuring glow colored the southeastern sky.  The next morning the horizon was just a bit darker -- the next day darker yet.  Waiting in the dismal predawn she had a strange, irresistible urge to fly to the southern edge of the woods to greet the rising sun.  Where the trees turn to meadow, she landed in the gray shadow of a Flowering Dogwood.  Across the branches sat a mysterious bird, a bird she had never seen before; large yellow eyes, bulky and upright, wearing the striped downy plumage of a screech owl not long out of the nest.  The two young birds stared at each other for several minutes, each puzzled by the uniqueness of the other.  The soon to rise sun lit up the eastern sky and with an abrupt “hu” the owl flew on silent wings into the dark woods.  The hummingbird shot off to the southwest, abandoning her familiar woods and thicket for a world unknown.

    All day she flew, south by southwest, close to the ground, stopping often to sip nectar from patches of jewelweed.  That night she roosted in a strange tree, far from the thicket. The next day she continued her trek, crossing mountains and hills, noisy towns and roads full of speeding vehicles.  Several times cars roared dangerously close, the wind in their wake pushing her off her steady course.  A few days later, after a short rain delay, she continued southward.  After several weeks she reached the Gulf of Mexico.

    She stayed along the Gulf Coast for some time, feeding on insects and nectar from the abundant flowers, especially the large orange blossoms of the Trumpet Vines.  Not only did these provide plenty of food but also a convenient platform to perch on while she fed.

    The young hummingbird, now not quite three months old, began to put on weight.  After she added enough fat to increase her weight by fifty percent, and the sky cleared and the day felt right, she headed south again, instinctively employing navigational skills unimaginable to the humans in the vessels below.  The six-hundred mile journey across the Gulf was long, hard and grueling.  Fatigue and darkness set in but there was no rest or refreshment possible over the ocean.  Over twenty hours later she landed, totally spent, on the Yucatan Peninsula.

    Near death she roosted in a tree beside a shallow lagoon surround by a humid, tropical forest.  A flock of flamingos waded in the pool and a troop of green parrots screamed as they flew overhead.  She barely had the energy to fly down for water and nectar.  As the sun set, the flamingos, with great wings flapping and legs awkwardly running took off.  They honked loudly, not quite in unison, as they circled the lagoon, the red tropical sunset almost setting their pink plumage ablaze.  The tiny bird, hatched in western Pennsylvania and no bigger than the dragonflies that patrolled the lagoon, had made it all the way to tropical Mexico.

Greater Flamingo

    Her journey continued through the tropics, taking her all the way to a scrubby forest in Costa Rica.  Here she defended a territory and became quite comfortable for five months among the heliconias, bromeliads and flowering vines, among the toucans, trogans, cuckoos and antbirds.

    In March, once again she felt the unexplainable restlessness.  She headed north, retracing her autumn flight, duplicating her crossing of the treacherous open sea.

    By mid April she was back in the United States feeding on nectar from the buckeyes.  As she worked her way northward and higher in the mountains, her progress slowed as flowers became scarce and insects unpredictable.  Her instincts directed her to the rows of holes in the maple trees.  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also migrated along the ridges and the trees were full of freshly drilled sap wells.

    She drank the sweet juices that flowed from the holes and snagged insects attracted to the nutritious sap.  Strengthened she resumed her journey.

    Late in the evening, sometime in mid May, she approached her familiar thicket, the one she left the summer before.  As the sun set she landed in the dogwood tree, its tiny flowers surrounded by large white bracts that glowed in the light of the rising full moon.  Hidden in the dogwood, unseen by the hummingbird, sat the same screech owl she met nearly nine months before.

    Her journey complete, the exhausted hummingbird rested in the security of the dogwood leaves.  The owl, hungry after the many hours of inactivity, waited for darkness to make its move.

    The experience gained on her journey paid off.  The branch shook as the owl attacked, and with a burst of speed and a quick twist the hummingbird disappeared safely into the dark thicket.

    The sweet fragrance of Black Locust blossoms filled the early June woods as the female hummingbird zipped past the man’s ear, a ball of spider silk in her beak . . .

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