Quintessential America

Flying Jewels



The brilliantly colored hummingbird is among the strongest and most athletic creatures on the planet

Sometime this summer, a young child will alight down the porch steps of her home in Barrington to discover amazement and delight. Her first solo excursion into the natural world will encounter a creature she has never seen before, and never knew existed outside of fanciful stories starring fairies. She will be captivated as almost everyone who encounters the little being is.

She will discover magic and the lovely rhythms of life the tiny creature plays out for anyone who wishes to see. She will discover the hummingbird. But the little girl will have lots of company in her new devotion.

We are creatures of our natural enthusiasm for life. This one little bird touches that chord inside us. It lives joyously. It invites admiration.

The amazed admiral

The admiral from Genoa, Italy, sloshed ashore on the morning of October 12. The banners of his royal benefactors flapped steadfastly under the searing sun. He came as a conqueror. The moment was rich with meaning and history.

The admiral thought he had found Asia, but of course, Christopher Columbus hardly ever knew where he was exactly. He was somewhere in the Bahamas on that morning in 1492, but which island exactly remains debated 523 years later.

But as he took in the grand moment of “discovering” a land where people already had been living comfortably and in harmony for a thousand years, his eye caught something small, swift, and colorful. It hovered. Then darted sideways. And then backward. It was a flying creature with a crimson-hued neck and wings moving so fast they could not be seen, but only heard. The creature could fly backwards. Then another came. Then a dozen.

Columbus was a man accustomed to new sights and high drama. But this creature had something of magic to it. No European had ever seen such a thing or contemplated it.

Columbus had “discovered” the New World and launched Europe’s colonial adventures in the Western Hemisphere, but what he actually had discovered was the hummingbird.

A week later, as he and his “Santa Maria” crew sailed around Cuba, he still thought about the little birds. His diary noted the … “little birds, so different from ours it is a marvel.”

Despite Columbus’ errant navigation, he likely saw a hummingbird from the same species—the Ruby-throated—that the little girl, and you, if you are vigilant, will see this summer.

The doyen

Wendy Paulson, Barrington’s 40-year doyen of birds, has spent the bulk of her adult life protecting wildlife and teaching acolytes about the glories of preserving living things.

Nobody in the area knows more than Paulson about creatures that fly, or has a longer record of activism on their behalf. But environmental activism is not merely an attitude. As a central player in Citizens for Conservation (CFC), she has helped shape and energize events that intervene for wildlife’s behalf. If the 350 species of hummingbirds that range from South America to Canada ever face the perils of extinction, it mostly likely people like Paulson who will stop it.

Though hummingbirds have existed for 22 million years and are strong, vibrant, and voraciously resilient, they always must overcome their toughest rival—humans.

The current potential threat reflects subtly shifting growth patterns in the blooming flowers. But that’s the long term. For now, Paulson aims on cures that counteract humanity’s worse effect on other creatures—the destruction of habitat. Animals cannot live if there is no place for them to nest, feed, and socially interact.

While “habitat restoration” might now sound emotionally cool as a topic, humans leave a wide swath as they stomp a large footprint in the world. There must be a rebalancing, and Barrington’s conservation warriors led the initiative to protect more than 3,150 acres of public land in the area. Four new forest preserves protect a Noah’s Arkload of creatures, particularly birds. CFC also owns 11 preserves encompassing 418-plus acres.

Every acre is salvation

“The Ruby-throat has actually been on the increase in Illinois and has had the steepest increase the last 45 years,” Paulson said. “They’re increasing about two percent a year in Illinois. There is a good variety of “nectaring plants” here, though out West the varieties are smaller and they could potentially be under more threat. You always give them a better chance if you plant more native shrubs, flowers, and trees, especially flowers with long tubes. Rubies especially like Columbines and Blue Bells, although the flowers don’t have to be red, as some think.”

What endangers wildlife is as well-known as what protects them. “The big threat to most birds is loss of habitat,” Paulson said. “For hummingbirds, it’s the loss of feeding sources for food. So the more we can restore native landscapes in the Barrington area, the more we protect the birds. That’s especially true of other native birds too, like the Meadowlark and Bobolinks.”

Rebuilding, restoration, and reforestation of space for birds is the conservationist’s essential Field of Dreams. “If you build it they will come, “Paulson says. “That’s always a big issue for migrants (species). To keep birds coming back to us you need areas to nest. The more plants are removed in an area, the more they are in jeopardy.”

But nothing protects wildlife as much as humans paying attention—not only to other creature—but also to their own tendencies to consume the land.

Life on the wing

Because hummingbirds are drawn to blooming flower nectar as their primary source of food, those who casually admire the little birds might misconceive hummingbirds as if they are lawn ornaments. But hummingbirds face an amazingly rigorous existence away from the backyard feeders and out of our sight most of the year.

Though they seem slight and delicate, they are not. They are among the strongest, most athletic creatures on the planet. They are Road Warriors.

When autumn skies fill with the V-formation of Canada geese, ducks, and cranes flying south to winter, it’s easy to recognize those as migratory birds. But in many categories, no airborne species works harder to survive on the road and in the air than do hummingbirds. If the hummingbirds are thriving, it’s because they were built to survive and have evolved to survive more intensely.

To reach Northern Illinois from Guatemala, a Ruby-throat must fly 1,800 miles every spring, including 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. And then it retraces the path in October. They fly at 30 miles-per-hour, an 18-hour nonstop flight over the ocean to reach North America.

Because Ruby-throats might live to age 8, they will have migrated 26,000 miles by life’s end. Their hearts beat 1,000 times a minute, faster than any other creature, and would have pounded out 525 million thumps. They have the fastest respiration in all of nature. That’s an aspect that requires them to match body weight in food nearly every day.

A Ruby-throat would have fluttered its wings 15 billions times in its life, without a single “flap.” Hummingbirds do not flap their wings; they rotate them in tight figure-eight motion that allows all 330 varieties of hummingbirds to hover and even fly backward at their whim.

Determined to survive

They are often stubborn, curious, feisty, and resolute in their pursuit of mates. Each variety has special plumage, usually more so for the males. Hummingbirds are brilliant, tiny, precision-flying creatures that glitter in the sun and dazzle with their aerial acrobatics, flying fast then stopping instantly, hovering, and zipping up, down, or backwards with exquisite control. When aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky invented the helicopter, he was trying to emulate the hummingbird.

But life in the wild is seldom easy for any creature. Eighty percent of all birds perish before they reach one year old, and that is also true for hummingbirds. Luckily for them, they are consistently competent breeders. An estimated 7 million hummingbirds survive at any given moment.

Hummingbird species are developing faster than almost any creature, except man. Hummingbirds are able to invade an area and rapidly

Hummingbird Fun Facts

  • Hummingbirds are the smallest of all birds, measuring between 2-8 inches in length.
  • There are about 340 species of hummingbirds in the world, all in the western hemisphere.
  • A Ruby-throated beats its wings 40-80 times a second, and maintains an average flight speed of 30 mph. Escape speeds can reach 50 mph.
  • Hovering is the most metabolically expensive form of flight because of the energy consumed. A hummingbird has the highest measured rate of aerobic metabolism of any living thing.
  • Hummingbird body temperatures range from 105°- 108°F
  • A hummingbird lives a relatively short life of great intensity (9 years,) while large creatures that move slowly (elephants, whales) live longer (60 years for a wild elephant.)
  • Eighty percent of all birds, including hummingbirds, will not live to see their first birthday.

Backyard Tips for Hummingbirds

diversify to fit that environment. In the last 5 million years, for example, a single group of hummingbird species has expanded to produce 42 new species. Blooming flowers have evolved to match with the hummingbird’s nectar feeding bills.

But science is not the main motivator for why humans love hummingbirds. The magic of them transcends the specifics of their evolution. We love them because they are unexpectedly, entrancingly, and compellingly beautiful.

The pathfinder males arrived in Texas and Louisiana in early March and have been following the spring flowers north, day by day.

They reached here by the end of April. Then the little creature that American bird artist John James Audubon called, “glittering garments of the rainbow” arrived at the little girl’s windowsill and urged her outside to experience its wonder for the first time.

She could not resist the magic jewel. Just as Admiral Columbus could not 500 years ago.

People who love hummingbirds know one of their secrets. They’ll come to your yard if you make it attractive enough. Here’s how:

You can attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to your backyard by setting up hummingbird feeders or by planting tubular flowers. Make sugar water mixtures with about one-quarter cup of table (only) sugar per cup of water. Food coloring is unnecessary.

Change the water before it grows cloudy or discolored and remember that during hot weather, sugar water ferments rapidly to produce toxic alcohol. Be careful about where you put your hummingbird feeders, as some cats have learned to lie in wait to catch visiting hummingbirds.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds feed on the nectar of red or orange tubular flowers such as trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, honeysuckle, jewelweed, bee-balm, red buckeye and red morning glory.

Hummingbirds also catch insects in midair or pull them out of spider webs. Main insect prey includes mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, and small bees; also eats spiders. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sometimes take insects attracted to sap wells or picks small caterpillars and aphids from leaves.

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.