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Hummingbirds: They may be tiny, but they can be feisty

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species native to Minnesota and Wisconsin. They migrate and arrive in May and leave in August or September. The males arrive first. Photo courtesy of Donald Mitchell1 / 3
Donald Mitchell retrieves a hummingbird from a cage trap to place a band on its leg. This will help him study the patterns of migration. Photo courtesy of Donald Mitchell2 / 3
Donald Mitchell works with the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory to track the numbers on these small bands placed around the legs of hummingbirds. Photo courtesy of Donald Mitchell3 / 3

Imagine that you weigh less than a nickel. Picture yourself floating in the air, moving forward and backward, up and down at will. Feel your heart beating more than a thousand times per minute and your wings fluttering 53 times per second.

That's what it would be like to be a hummingbird, according to Donald Mitchell, field biologist and certified hummingbird bander.

"There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds worldwide," Mitchell said, "but with hummingbirds, worldwide means North and South America. There are no hummingbirds in Europe or Africa."

Ecuador has 100 species, Mitchell explained, and the United States has 16 species, although eight of those species are primarily in Mexico and only cross a short distance into the U.S. The rest of the country has eight species, but the eastern U.S., including Minnesota and Wisconsin, only has a single breeding species — the ruby-throated hummingbird, named for the red feathers that wrap around the throat of the adult males, an area called the gorget.

Donald MitchellMitchell, who works as a land records coordinator for Goodhue County, said his "interest in hummingbirds stems from a summer field biology course I took as an undergraduate in California."

During that time, Mitchell investigated pollinators of delphinium plants in the wild and worked with calliope hummingbirds, the smallest migratory bird in the world.

"I became fascinated by the visits of the tiny birds to the delphinium for nectar," he explained, "and intrigued by the interactions of plants and animals."

Mitchell said many people in Minnesota are interested in seeing and feeding hummingbirds. He said hummingbirds are especially attracted to red, tubular flowers that hang down, which are more difficult for insects.

"Hummingbirds can hover and reach up," Mitchell said. "They are not attracted by scent. The most important thing is nectar. Hummingbirds need copious amounts of nectar."

In seeking nectar, hummingbirds serve a useful ecological role by pollinating thousands of species of plants. In Minnesota, four plant species — eastern columbine, Indian paintbrush, jewelweed, and cardinal flower — rely on hummingbirds for pollination.

If people want to grow plants in their gardens to see hummingbirds, he recommends bee balm, salvia coccinea, eastern columbine, and cardinal flower as easy plants to grow.

Mitchell has worked with the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory to place bands on hummingbirds. Because the bands are so small, he said reading the numbers on the bands and placing them on hummingbird's legs can be a challenge.

The bands are "used to monitor the status and trends of resident and migratory bird populations," according to the Bird Banding Laboratory website. "Because birds are good indicators of the health of the environment, the status and trends of bird populations are critical for identifying and understanding many ecological issues and for developing effective science, management and conservation practices."

Hummingbirds tend to return to the same areas each year, according to Mitchell, so when he recaptures hummingbirds and checks their bands, he often discovers he has recaptured birds that he banded in earlier years.

Mitchell said hummingbirds frequently appear in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin in early May, spend the summer, and return south in late August or early September.

When hummingbirds find flowers they like, they are willing to defend them. Mitchell said hummingbirds use their bills as weapons, and he has heard them battling for flowers.

"They are aggressive towards each other," he said. "They are feisty. It's a good thing they are not as big as crows."

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

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