Hummingbirds of North America

What is a Hummingbird?

Hummingbirds are among the few birds capable of inspiring equal fascination among birders and nonbirders alike. Their jewel-like colors, astounding powers of flight, and fearless nature have captured the imagination of people around the world. Many of whom have never come into contact with these uniquely New World Birds. These charismatic creatures are also an increasingly conspicuous part of both rural and urban landscapes. Especially, in the continental United States and southern Canada as feeding and gardening for hummingbirds grow in popularity. But hummingbirds are more than just pretty faces. As migratory birds, they are part of the Earth’s circulatory system. Transporting energy and other resources between tropical and temperate ecosystems which can be thousands of miles apart. 

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Natural History of North American Hummingbirds

The 17 species of hummingbirds that have bred in the United States and Canada represent approximately 5 percent of the world’s hummingbird species. They are mostly small generalists, likely of relatively recent evolutionary origin. As ranges expanded northward, they followed the end of the major glacial periods. Their nectar plants are less specialized than hummingbird-pollinated plants of the tropics. This suggests recent divergence from insect pollinated ancestors. The distribution of species in North America reflects both the geographic challenges to migration. This also includes the opportunities created by diverse habitats. The formidable migration barrier of the Gulf of Mexico, combined with the relative monotony of the primeval eastern forests, explains the presence of a single breeding species, which is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, east of the Mississippi River. Our concepts of the relationships among the species of North American hummingbirds have remained relatively stable in recent times.

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Watching Hummingbirds

By far, the best way to encourage visits by hummingbirds is to create a landscape that meets their basic needs for food, water, and shelter. Unfortunately, the expensive lawns so typical of modern suburbia fail to meet even minimal requirements for hummingbird habitat. However, creating a haven from such a landscape may take many years. Fortunately, a growing list of resources is available to the beginning wildlife gardener. Specialty nurseries and seed suppliers can be accessed. Mainly from books and videos from either online or your nearest book store. 

Nectar plants can be used to attract hummingbirds to virtually any setting. Even the limited space of a patio, deck, courtyard, or apartment balcony. Colorful blossoms of all types will catch the eyes of passing migrants, but serious hummingbird gardeners choose plants that provide the quantity and quality of nectar the birds prefer. Many plants favored by hummingbirds are commonly available from mainstream seed companies or nurseries. 

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How To Identify Hummingbirds

Compared to some birding challenges, identification of North American hummingbirds is relatively straightforward. For the most part, geographic variation can be limited. Most birds assume complete adult plumage with their first molt. Identification complicated; however, by the chameleon-like qualities of iridescence, the often nondescript plumages of females and immature males, similarities among closely related species, and hybridization. There is also individual variation, especially in color and pattern of the gorget and tail in females and immature males. As with other birds, wear, staining, molt, and accidental loss of feathers can radically alter appearance. A streak, patch, or wash of color on the crown or throat is usually seen as pollen acquired while feeding at flowers. These “false field marks” may be white, yellow, orange, or even reddish, depending on the source. The most effective means of learning to identify hummingbirds is to spend time studying familiar species.

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