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Northland summertime is also hummer time

One of the most fascinating of our summertime birds is the zip-zip-zipping little ruby-throated hummingbird. Easily attracted to our homes by filling special hummingbird feeders with sweet sugar-water and hanging them at various locations on or around our houses, "hummers," as they are also affectionately called, are joyous flying marvels to observe.

Still, as common as they are from their mid-May arrival to their seemingly sudden mid-September departure here in the Northland, the birds' natural history is remarkably mysterious to many people. Questions abound, folklore persists and some facts are little known.

For example, we all know that hummingbirds can fly, and fly extremely well, but can hummingbirds walk? While most people would be hard pressed to come up with a single instance where they observed a hummer on foot, the answer might be surprising.

Indeed, what they can do is shuffle short distances from side to side. Even so, you will rarely, if ever, see them do this. A hummingbird would rather fly than use feet and legs for locomotion.

Besides, with wings that beat from 20 to as much as 200 beats per second, why would they walk? If you happen to own a perch-type feeder, watch closely the next time you see a hummingbird perch and drink from your feeder. If you're lucky, you might witness the bird do the "hummingbird shuffle."

Hummingbirds are members of the aptly named avian order, Apodiformes. This Latin name essentially means "without foot". Of course, as you know, hummingbirds do have feet and legs - it's just that their feet and legs are miniscule and are used almost exclusively for perching and standing.

Do hummingbirds migrate by hitching rides on the backs of swans and geese, or under the wings of such birds? Not hardly. Some hummingbirds, of which there are more than 300 species worldwide, including around 15 species here in North America, migrate enormous distances every year.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, for example, migrates each autumn to Central and South America by flying non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. They are able to do this by putting on the "pounds," so to speak, before migrating. Hummingbirds can accumulate fat equal to half of their own body weight, thus providing them with enough energy to make the trip.

What do hummingbirds eat? Mostly nectar from flowers, but hummers also eats insects. Some 90 percent of a hummingbird's diet, however, is nectar from flowers (and perhaps supplemented by sugar-water from you feeders!). But if you've ever seen a hummer suddenly dive and abruptly turn in mid-air, it could be that you just witnessed one capturing an insect.

Is a hummingbird's bill and tongue hollow? It is often believed that since the birds forage on liquid nectar, a hummer's tongue and bill must be hollow like a straw, and that the nectar is therefore drawn inside their throats and stomachs by a sucking action.

But truth told, while hummingbirds do possess two mandibles and a tongue, none of these anatomy are hollow. Their tongues are used simply to probe flowers and feeders in order to extract nectar and sugar-water, which in turn is then squeezed off their tongues inside their mouths.

How do they feed their offspring? Hummer chicks are fed a mixture of partially digested nectar and insects that are regurgitated into their gaping hungry mouths. Like a sword-swallowing circus act, female hummingbirds insert their long bills inside their youngsters' mouths and feed them the protein-packed meals.

Why do hummingbirds attack other hummingbirds? In the case of our resident ruby-throated hummingbirds, male birds are extremely territorial and will aggressively guard food sources and female hummingbirds from other males. If you have ever watched a bed of flowers frequented by hummers or observed a hummingbird feeder for any length of time, you are sure to observe this behavior. Male ruby-throats show little tolerance of other males inside their breeding territory.

Where do hummingbirds go during the summertime when they're not visiting our feeders? Does this really happen? These are good questions and are questions often asked of me. Yours truly has also noticed this each summer.

I recently received an email from a reader who asked me about the hummingbird disappearing act. Hailing from south of Northome on a nearby lake, he wrote, "We have three feeders all located near our windows and have hummers present in large numbers all day long. For the last three years, during late July (7-19 thru 7-29 this year) all of the birds disappear only to reappear approximately 10 days later, when the consumption rate returns to normal quantities."

He continued, "I would really like to know where the birds are going during the vacancy period and what they are eating?"

Well David, you described a common occurrence in every breeding adult hummingbird's annual life cycle. About the time you notice a brief absence of hummers at your feeders, is about the time hummingbirds are busy feeding a diet of insects to young nestlings that are about ready to fledge.

Insects, and plenty of them, are exactly what young and growing hummingbird chicks need during this critical time. And once the youngsters have fledged, the parents spend a few additional days feeding their demanding brood even more insects. Soon afterward, the whole family, sometimes multiple families, frequents feeders, flower gardens and wildflower patches seeking out sweet sugar-water and nectar.

Hummingbirds are truly fascinating creatures. They're impossibly small and surprisingly fast, so questions about them are unending. In the case of our resident ruby-throated hummingbirds with wingspans of barely five inches wide, one can only wonder as we sit idly by listening and watching and learning - while we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at