In honor of hummingbirds | The JOLT News Organization, a Washington non-profit organization

By George Walter

The more we know about hummingbirds, the more they amaze us. They are so different in body, size and behavior from any other bird, and they are willing to come straight to our window feeder to show us their unique skills and traits.

These birds are only found in the western hemisphere. There are some 360 ​​species, making them the second largest of all bird families. Most are found in the tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America, but 18 species are found in North America, four are regularly seen in Washington, and two spend time in Thurston County.

The first thing you notice about these birds is the buzzing. It is caused by the very fast wing beats in an asymmetrical pattern. The flight of hummingbirds has been recorded at more than 60 wing beats per second. Hummingbirds always travel by flying; they have such small, weak legs that they cannot walk or even jump.

An impressive and unusual flight pattern is the hovering. Achieving this in variable wind speeds and directions requires the coordination of both wings and the size, shape and direction of the tail, each individually. No wonder few birds know how.

Most hummingbirds are migratory, meaning they fly from their summer territory to wintering grounds in the south. Eastern North American hummers migrate across the Gulf of Mexico, so they fly 500-600 miles nonstop over water, flying for more than 10 hours at 80 mph. That’s quite an achievement for a bird that weighs just over an ounce.

For all their unique features, hummingbirds have been closely studied by ornithologists. For example, we know that they have the highest metabolic rate of all vertebrates. Their typical heart rate is 1260 beats per minute and they reach 200 breaths per minute. It’s no wonder they are constantly looking for food.

Thurston’s Hummingbirds

The two species that are fairly common here in Thurston County are the migratory red hummingbird and the resident Anna’s hummingbird. Rufous are here now; they leave in October and return at the end of February.

The other two species seen in Washington are Calliope and Black-chinned, which are in the Cascades and eastern Washington in summer and also migrate.

Spiders provide housing

Hummingbird breeding habits are also fascinating. The female builds a very small nest made of cobwebs and decorated with lichen on top of a small branch. She lays two eggs the size of coffee beans. (Yet they are large considering the size of the mother). The male plays no role in rearing the young. The female feeds the young with regurgitated nectar and small insects. The young are ready to leave the nest about 18 days after they hatch. When they fly for the first time, they fly straight up a few meters – an amazing sight

Not surprisingly, the early life of hummingbirds is fraught with difficulties. But if one survives the following spring to return, it can have a lifespan of 3-5 years, or even longer. The record lifespan is 11 years for a striped Anna’s Hummingbird.

How to attract hummingbirds?

You can attract hummingbirds to your home or yard in two ways. The first is to plant flowers rich in nectar – bee balm, columbine, crocosmia, honeysuckle and impatiens are good choices. The second is to set up a food bowl and offer sugar water. Most garden and health food stores have inexpensive ones available, and they will include directions and a recipe for the sugar water.

Do not use red food coloring. The red plastic flower on the feeder will attract them when they are nearby. In hot weather, wash the feeder and change the sugar water every 2-3 days as it can spoil. Don’t be discouraged if someone doesn’t show up right away. There are a lot of blooming flowers right now, and your neighbor’s feeder might also be holding their attention.

Some people keep their food bowls full all winter to attract Anna’s. A friend’s hummingbird feeder actually gets more visitors in the winter, when flowers are scarce.

You may be wondering how little Anna’s hummingbird survives in our cold winters. That includes another interesting biological feature of hummingbirds: their ability to go into sedation. This is a hibernation-like state in which the heart rate, respiration and internal temperature of the birds are reduced by 50% or more. Then, when it is warmer, they “wake up”. And, most importantly, during warmer periods there are often small flying insects – an important source of protein for these wintering friends.

George Walter is the environmental program manager of the natural resources division of the Nisqually Indian Tribe; he also has an interest of over 40 years in bird watching. He can be reached at

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympian birdwatcher and avid photographer.

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