The Life of a Female Hummingbird

Though more subtly colored and less flamboyant in their actions than male hummers, the typical female hummingbird leads a more active and interesting life!

When it comes to hummingbirds, the spotlight is usually on the flashy, colorful males. The females, more subtly colored and less flamboyant in their actions, are often underappreciated. In fact, however, female hummers lead more active and interesting lives than their mates. We decided to demonstrate by following one typical ruby-throated hummingbird from her wintering grounds through the first part of the nesting season.

Winter in the Tropics

The story begins in late January in Central America, along the foothills of Costa Rica, where a female ruby-throat arrived in October from her summer nesting territory in Pennsylvania. Here in the tropics, the weather is warm, flowers bloom everywhere, and it’s always easy to find tiny insects to eat. Nearly a dozen other species of hummingbirds are living nearby, in the forest or along the edge where this ruby-throat spends her time, but mostly they live without direct competition.

This female hummingbird has had an easy time of it for the last three months, but soon she’ll start to become restless, and her instincts will tell her to go north.

Heading Home

First the heroine of our story begins gaining weight. This is a good thing, because the fat she puts on will fuel her migratory flight. During some seasons, ruby-throats can double their body mass in about a week, going from about a 10th of an ounce up to a fifth.

In late February she begins moving north through Central America. Traveling by day and sleeping at night, she flies out of Costa Rica and through Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Then she heads for southeast Mexico. It’s a leisurely trip, covering about 1,500 miles in six weeks. When she reaches the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in mid-April, she faces a major challenge. The shortest route north now is directly across the Gulf of Mexico—600 miles over open water. Even with favorable winds, the flight will take her about 18 hours. Many other migrants are traveling the same route at this season, including small songbirds, but it’s an extraordinary journey for a creature weighing less than a nickel. When she completes the crossing, arriving on the U.S. Gulf Coast, she must quickly find food so she can build up her strength and keep flying north.

Nesting Grounds

The female ruby-throat reaches central Pennsylvania the second week of May. Her summer territory is in a suburban neighborhood with flower gardens and plenty of trees. Male ruby-throats have already arrived. A few are in the neighborhood, each one fiercely defending a small territory by perching high, chasing away intruders and performing courtship displays.

Unlike many songbirds, the female ruby-throat won’t select a mate and move in to share his territory. She establishes her own little home range and mates with one of the nearby males. And after the first date, her Prince Charming won’t pay any more attention to her. He’ll be off trying to court other females, leaving each new mate to start raising her young by herself.

DID YOU KNOW? After a ruby-throat baby learns to fly and leaves the nest, its mother may feed it for another week, but then it is on its own. It even migrates solo. In fall, a ruby-throat begins the southward journey purely by instinct.

Steve and Dave Maslowski DID YOU KNOW?
After a ruby-throat baby learns to fly and leaves the nest, its mother may feed it for another week, but then it is on its own. It even migrates solo. In fall, a ruby-throat begins the southward journey purely by instinct.

Starting a Family

In the third week of May, the ruby-throat chooses a site for her nest. Typically it’s out near the tip of a long horizontal tree branch 15 to 20 feet above the ground. The construction of a hummingbird nest is amazing. First she carefully gathers scraps of spiderweb to form a sticky pad on a branch. To this she’ll affix a flat pad of plant down before building up the sides of the nest with more of the same soft, pliable materials. It may take her hundreds of trips over a week or more to gather what she needs and press it into place. As a finishing touch, she’ll select tiny flakes of lichen to camouflage the outside of the miraculous little cup.

After the nest is done, she lays a tiny egg and soon begins incubating it. One to three days later, she lays a second one. For the next two weeks or so, she will sit on them all night and most of the day, leaving the nest several times a day to feed herself.  When the eggs hatch, our already industrious little bird turns into a dynamo.

The ruby-throat visits flowers, drinking as much nectar as she can gather and swallowing tiny insects as well. Then she returns to the nest and sticks her bill deep into the throat of a baby, pumping her neck muscles as she regurgitates the nectar mix into its stomach. Then she feeds the other baby. If it’s chilly, she may sit on top of the young for a minute to brood them and warm them up. Then she’s off again. It requires an exhausting effort to get enough food for herself and both of her young.

An Empty Nest

For about three weeks the baby hummers grow, and the tiny nest, with its spiderweb magic, actually stretches to accommodate them. They begin exercising their wings after about 15 days, standing up on the edge of the nest and buzzing their wings vigorously. A few days later, one at a time, they abruptly leave the nest, launching into an awkward first flight.

At first the fledglings can’t feed themselves; it takes practice to be able to hover at a flower and drink nectar. The female will continue to feed them for up to a week after they leave the nest as they learn how to find food. And at the same time, our tireless little mother may already be building another nest, preparing to raise a second brood for the season.

What they lack in flash and finery, these feathered sprites make up for in spunk, determination and fine parenting skills. So the next time you see a female hummingbird, be sure to give her a little extra attention. She’s earned it!

ATTRACT MORE HUMMINGBIRDS
Sign up for our All About Hummingbirds class at backyardbirder.com to get more hummingbird tips and hints from the Kaufmans.

Immature ruby-throated hummingbirds fuel up on late bloomers like butterfly weed before migrating south.

Steve and Dave Maslowski

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Want to lend female hummingbirds a hand? Try these tips:

  1. Keep your sugar-water feeder full. If it’s empty, the birds will look for food somewhere else.
  2. Offer more than one feeder. Yes, hummingbirds can get protective over feeders in summer. Help defeat a bully male hummingbird by hanging feeders in a couple of locations.
  3. Keep your feeders clean. You should change the water every few days and clean your feeder once a week to keep it as free of bugs and grime as possible.
  4. Plant nectar-rich flowers. Females can use every nectar source they can get.
  1. Bob Lamontagne says

    We love our little hummers all summer long. They are the most entertaining little fighter jets! We have four feeders up in a twenty foot radius right by our patio and just love watching them. This article really helped us understand what happens in a female’s life. Thank you so much for the info.

  2. says

    We had a bander in Illinois at a farmhouse in the country. The woman who lived there knew all about hummers and her husband did the banding.

    We visited a place here in Illinois where they were banding hummers. They had about 30 feeders and highschool girls would wait until the bird flew into a feeder and reach in to catch it. They were so tiny and they were very careful not to hurt it. It took the bander only a minute or so to attach the band and let the bird go. Very interesting.!!

  3. Susie Higgins says

    This was a most enjoyable article about the female hummingbird. What a little powerhouse! We’re in Bass Harbor Maine and nothing is in bloom yet so they really depend on the feeders.

  4. Anne says

    the ruby throated hummers come up here in Ontario too. They tend to go quite north too. Love them up at cottage , I grow as many plants with tubular red flowers as much as possible for them when I’m not there for changing the sugar-water feeders. My fav bird for summer!

  5. Terry says

    Loved the article and have an even greater respect and fascination for the female hummers…if that’s even possible. Our Anna’s entertain us all through the winter months. We bring the feeders in after dark to prevent freezing and put them back out at daybreak.

  6. stacey christensen says

    We just discovered a nest in the neighbors garage, on a long horizontal pole near the end, About 12 feet high. Thank you for this article it came at the perfect time! We are keeping our feeder full at all times for that lil mama. And contemplating a new one as well.

  7. Marsha says

    I have been feeding hummers for many, many years and I’m still so delighted when the first ones come and feed!
    I noticed last year, as I looked out my kitchen window, there was a hummer flying around a spot where I had previously hung one of my many feeders! Amazing they can find their way back to the same spot! They are one of God’s most amazing creatures!
    Thanks for the great article….I get Birds and Blooms magazine and they do articles on hummingbirds quite often.
    Thanks again!

  8. Marti says

    I Loved the article. We finally got a ruby throat in our former yard, and a nest, Then we moved, It took 10 years to get one to stay. Now I have to start all over. I wish I could have taken her with me. It was great to know (through the article)what all she did after her brood hatched.

  9. says

    We just had a lovely experience with a hummer. I had ad wind chime right outside my kitchen window on my patio. The chime had a crossbar at the top. We watched the hummer on the chime as she began her nest all the way to the day the babies left. What a wonderful experience for the grand kids and us to watch this day by day procedure.
    One day the hummer kept hovering around the nest and chirping like crazy. She would go up to the nest and fly off for a little distance, back and forth trying to get her babies to get off the nest and join her. Finally one of them did, but the other one would not budge. The nest day the hummer came back and repeated the same routine over and over until the baby flew out of the nest. We hope she will come back and make a new nest some time as we are leaving the nest where it is, just in case she comes back.

  10. Janet Marr says

    Loved this article. Was amazed on all that the female hummer does. She is amazing! Two years ago I saw a Ruby throated hummer chasing a chickadee around and sure enough I watched and saw her go into a nest at the end of a branch up in our Maple tree.

  11. Marcia says

    I love the Females most, there is something so gentle and sweet about them, they tend to stay longer drinking more, and can see why , great article reminding me how much they need as they need to share some with the babies..

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