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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the great entertainers of summer

Minnesota's tiniest wild bird, the beloved ruby-throated hummingbird, has made its way back to Minnesota in recent days.

Although I haven't observed a hummingbird yet, a friend of mine 90 miles to the south reported seeing his first one on May 9. Indeed, by the time many of you read these words, I'll bet a 10-pound bag of sugar that some of you have observed your first "hummer" here in the Northland, too.

The hummingbird is one of those birds that entertain and delight us in more ways than one. Aside from being able to fly backwards, straight up or down, and hover motionless, they are extremely small and beautiful birds. Of the 15 species of hummers that breed and nest north of Mexico, only one hummingbird routinely visits flowers and feeders east of the Great Plains. That of course is our own ruby-throated hummingbird, sometimes affectionately called "ruby throat."

Aptly named because of the male's metallic red throat-patch, its other colors are equally as dazzling, especially when the sunlight strikes the bird just so. Green metallic above, white below its red throat contrasting with dark tail feathers, the little fellow is indeed a sight to behold. He seems, well, almost too dressed up.

Barely 3 inches long and weighing scarcely 2 grams, the featherweight ruby-throat does just fine for its size. Migration is a great example of this. Ruby-throated hummingbirds cover massive distances by crossing the Gulf of Mexico, nonstop, and fly to various locations throughout the eastern half of the United States, including parts of southern Canada.

Being small is important in order to feed on their most important food source: flowers. Ruby throats are especially attracted to red and orange, tube-shaped flowers. Here in northern Minnesota, wild columbine and jewelweed are particular favorites. In addition to natural food sources, hummers are also attracted to artificial food sources that we human admirers eagerly provide them.

Walk into any retail outlet that sells bird seed and bird feeding supplies, and you'll readily discover that plenty of counter space is devoted entirely to hummingbird feeders and accessories and hummingbird so-called "nectar" mixes. Truth to be told, one need only to mix one part sugar to three or four parts water. No need to add red dye either. Hummingbirds know what a feeder looks like. And besides, most feeders are red in color, which serve as all the attractant hummingbirds seek.

For many of us, the last half of the month of May until around mid-September, or a little later, is the time when filling feeders with sweet sugar-water becomes a routine we all fall into with much joy. Here at my home next to Assawa Lake, hummingbirds typically arrive around Mother's Day weekend. This year's unusually cooler spring might delay northward migration by a few days, but I suspect that when I observe my first ruby throat I won't be all that surprised about the arrival date. One can reliably predict that hummers will arrive to their northern Minnesota breeding grounds by mid to late May.

Like many migrant species of wild birds, it is the male that reaches the breeding grounds first. When male hummingbirds arrive, they quickly stake claim of available food sources wherever they may find them, closely guarding and aggressively defending prized locales from other males, including, of course, our hummingbird feeders filled with sweet and fresh sugar-water. I have observed many a dominant male hummer chase other male hummers away from feeders with astonishingly acrobatic, dive-bombing vengeance. Such aeronautical displays occur practically non-stop throughout the season.

An especially interesting territorial flight display performed by male ruby throats, are the U-shaped courtship flights designed to woo the ladybirds. Normally carried out in front of a sedentary female perched on a branch of a tree, the male hummingbird buzzes to and fro in large sweeping flights in the shape of the letter U. Meant to dazzle and impress, the male will generally shift its courtship flight to side-to-side flights directly in front of the perching female. And if his courtship display is deemed just right by the female, mating will occur, followed by nesting and rearing young.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are among Minnesota's most specialized species of bird. Impossibly small and brilliantly colored, lucky we are that these beautiful and interesting birds are about to entertain us once again with their buzzing wings and chattering calls as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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