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Hummingbirds are some of the most distinctive birds to see in Iowa – if your eyes can keep up. Known for their extremely speedy flight and abrupt stops, these winged gems are fun to spot and easy to attract to your yard or apartment windowsill with a feeder. Look for them over the summer and you might even see a rare species!
While Iowa most certainly has hummingbirds, there’s debate as to how many species frequent the state from year to year. Part of the difficulty is getting the birds to sit still for a photo, and another part is that four of the five species ever documented in Iowa are exceedingly rare – the second most common has only been documented 14 times, and you could count the sightings of the least common three on one hand. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, however, are common across all 99 counties, and more than 80 percent of the estimated 20 million ruby-throated hummingbirds in the world spend time in the U.S. every year.
Christmas in July
The ruby-throated hummingbird has a distinctively festive coloration and can be seen all summer. Both males and females are mostly iridescent emerald, with a patch on their chest and chin that’s red in males and white or gray in females. The fancy word for this patch is the gorget, as it looks similar to the armor plates that covered the throats of medieval military personnel.
The second most common species, the rufous hummingbird, is very different. As the name implies, both males and females are predominantly orange and surprisingly feisty. These birds, which weigh about as much as a nickel and stand as high as a paper clip, will relentlessly chase other birds and even chipmunks away from their feeders, flowers and nests.
Hummingbirds like food they can spot, and with eyes that can see into the ultraviolet spectrum they can spot a lot. Ruby-throated hummingbirds prefer visiting red and orange flowers, while rufous hummers are less picky. For artificial feeders, the color of the feeder itself attracts hummingbirds. Adding food dye to the sugar water in your feeder won’t significantly impact the feeder’s overall attractiveness to hummingbirds, so skip that step.
There’s a Fly in my Soup
Hummingbirds also supplement their nectar diet with protein and fat from insects. These birds commonly steal meals out of spiderwebs and prey on insects caught in tree sap. Hummingbird meals have been analyzed to contain gnats, beetles, aphids, spiders, mosquitos, ants and even bees – although those the birds eat tend to be exceedingly small. So if you see a hummingbird darting around an area, apparently doing nothing, it’s likely eating insects too small for you to see.
The rufous hummingbird has the northernmost breeding range of any hummingbird in the western hemisphere, with the tail end stretching along the West Coast, through Canada and into Alaska. Only rarely does a bird stray as far east as Iowa. Ruby-throated hummingbirds’ breeding range engulfs the entire eastern half of the U.S., and only extends to central Canada. Both species fly south to spend their winters in Central and South America, often crossing the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight!
Short and Sleek
Hummingbirds, like swifts, are classified as Apodiformes – literally meaning “without feet.” This is due to their very short legs and habit of tucking their feet in close to the body during flight. Hummingbirds’ legs are so short that they are not capable of hopping or walking, although they can manage a shuffle and can scratch their heads with some acrobatics. Hummingbirds also lack down feathers, which would weigh them down and create more drag in flight. Unfortunately, this makes them more susceptible to weather changes, as they can’t trap warm air around their bodies without this down.
So the hummingbird, instead of shivering, goes into a torpid state to conserve energy. In this state, the bird’s body temperature plummets and its heartbeat can drop from as many as 1,200 beats per minute to just 50. This allows the hummingbird to survive freezing nights and warm up in the morning from sunlight. Artificial feeders can also be crucial in cold-weather survival, but only if the sugar water in them doesn’t freeze!
Birdie Want a Feeder?
Inexpensive hummingbird feeders can be purchased or made at home for those that don’t have the time (or green thumb) to create a garden with plants to attract hummingbirds. For best results, pick a red feeder and fill it with a sugar water solution of ¼ cup sugar in 1 cup water. Mix well, and change the solution often – if it gets cloudy, you’ve waited too long and should fully clean out the feeder. Cloudiness indicates fermentation and the production of toxic alcohol, which can be very hazardous to hummingbirds.
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