Behold, the mighty hummingbird returns

Male ruby-throated Hummingbirds began appearing on mainland Nova Scotia last week, according to the first arrival map at Hummingbird.net. It’s only a matter of days before we get word of a Caper hummer.

2016 Hummer Map April 27

Males, which are easily distinguished by their iridescent red throats, arrive ahead of the females. Nova Scotia’s first hummer of the year appeared on April 19, and half a dozen more have been reported since. Each early report is recorded with a dot, colour-coded in half-month increments, so its easy to track the northward progress.

The hummers that entertain us at feeders for the next five months likely spent the winter in Mexico, in Central America, or on Caribbean islands. For most, the migration included an astounding, non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico, which ornithologists believe they complete in 18-20 hours. (The widespread yarn about hitchhiking on larger birds is, apparently, a myth.)

The little birds that make this twice-a-year, 5,000 kilometre trek, weigh a shade over three grams. If you could fit them into an envelope, you could mail eight of them with a first-class stamp.

Hummingbird.net has been tracking the northern hummer migration for 20 years, so the site has a somewhat dated look and feel. It contains links to all the previous maps, so you can look for trends—although it may be hard to tell which changes are real, and which are merely the result of better reporting.

One interesting development is the appearance of Ruby-throated hummingbirds in Newfoundland and Labrador, previously thought to be outside their range. The first Newfoundland hummer appeared on the 2004 map, eight years into the project. Another showed up in 2006, and then 2011. Last year there were reports throughout the island of Newfoundland, and one in southern Labrador.

Lanny Chambers, the St. Louis man who maintains the site, believes window feeders serve a useful purpose:

Ruby-throats are intensely inquisitive and thus easily attracted to feeders, where males in particular typically display aggressive territoriality toward rival hummers, other birds, and even insects such as bees, butterflies, and sphinx moths.

They quickly become accustomed to human presence, and will swoop down to investigate red articles of clothing, possibly as potential food sources. Feeders hung at windows attract as many visitors as ones farther from structures, and the bird that claims a feeder as its territory may spend much of the day perched nearby, guarding the food source against intruders.

Many hummingbird watchers find “Hummer Warz” endlessly entertaining, although the chases are obviously serious business to the hungry birds. For a short period immediately after fledging, a female will tolerate the presence of her own young at the feeder, but they are soon treated the same as other adult birds – as rivals in pursuit of the food necessary to prepare for the fall migration.

If you spot a male hummer in Cape Breton over the next few days, Chambers invites reports using this form.

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