The diminutive hummingbird is found all over the world, but in North America, they enjoy a healthy and thriving population in Virginia. The most popular species of hummingbirds in Virginia are characterized by their distinctive markings, presence during specific seasons and unique song. Tiny and brilliant, these birds can be spotted flitting from one flower to another, soaking up nectar while gracing the neighborhood with its sweet song.
The most commonly found hummingbird in Virginia, the ruby-throated hummingbird is characterized by its colorful markings, small size and distinctive song. The males have a red throat, white breast and green back. They have a unique, fork-shaped tail, and a long, pointed beak and are brightly colored in order to attract female hummingbirds.
The female has a more muted color palette, with a green back, gray breast and black, gray and white feathers. You can typically spot the male hummingbirds earlier in the spring season than the males, usually around early April. They arrive from their winter migration a bit earlier than the females so that they can stake out the right spot for the mating ritual. The females usually arrive around mid-May, just in time to mate and lay eggs.
One of the main characteristics of the ruby-throated hummingbird it its migratory patterns. In early fall, these small birds make the long journey to the warmer climes of South and Central America, only returning to the state in early to mid spring. The females leave first, starting the trek in late August. The males follow in early September, after their mating duties are complete. Ruby-throated hummingbirds fly low the entire trip, keeping their eyes open for nectar-filled flowers. They fly up to 23 miles per day, flapping their wings up to 80 times per second, their hearts beating 1,280 times per minute. In order to keep up with this intense level of energy, the hummingbird must need either constant food or fat stores to make the trip. Prior to starting the migration, they typically gain up to 40 percent of their body weight. Providing the fuel they need is one of the best ways to attract ruby-throated hummingbirds to your backyard.
The Rufous hummingbird and the ruby-throated hummingbird look similar, but there are some distinctive features that can help you to tell the two species apart. The females of the species look alike, but the Rufous hummingbird has green feathers on her head and neck. The male Rufous hummingbird has a bright orange instead of red throat, and a pointed tail, unlike the forked tail of the Ruby-throated hummingbird. In addition, the Rufous hummingbird is slightly larger than his counterpart, weighing in at about three ounces.
The Rufous hummingbird is the one you’re most likely to see at your feeder. Their population is similar to that of the Ruby-throated, but their aggressive nature means they are more likely to stake their claim and defend it, chasing away other birds, and even some rodents.
The Rufous hummingbird’s migration pattern mirrors that of the Ruby-throated, with the females leaving first and the males following closely behind a few weeks later. By October, you are not likely to see these birds in your yard anymore. Their short season in Virginia lasts only from April to September.
The Rufous hummingbird is a strong flyer, often crossing the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight. During the spring migration, they typically use tail winds to their advantage, flying in the same direction of the wind in order to conserve energy. Strong northward winds from the Gulf of Mexico make the final leg of the trip difficult as they are often flying against the wind and struggling with exhaustion and starvation. They do not eat during their last flight from the southern United States into Mexico and Central and South America.
Magnificent or Refulgent Hummingbirds
The Magnificent or Refulgent hummingbird is a rare sight in Virginia, as their population is much smaller than that of other hummingbirds native to the area. The Magnificent, or Refulgent hummingbird is characterized by its size. Nearly twice the size of other hummingbirds, they are often mistaken for other species. The male has a metallic green marking pattern on his throat and an all-black chest. He has a purple-lavender forehead and crown and a dark green back. The females have more muted markings, with a grey chest, olive green back and crown and pearl grey-tipped feathers.
The Magnificent hummingbirds’ songs tweets, chirps and whistles are punctuated with sounds from their tail and wings. Several species of the bird produce a variety of sounds, from a metallic trill to rattles and high-pitched whines.
The Black-Chinned hummingbird is another rare visitor, but he is easy to spot as he looks much different than his counterparts. Characterized by the pale feathers that make him look almost silver, he has a black head and light green back and chest. The female Black-Chinned hummingbird is pale as well, with speckles at her throat, a green back and a rounded tail.
During the fall migration, starting in late August and early September, the Black-Chinned hummingbirds, like most hummingbirds in Virginia, head south. They refuel in the pre-dawn hours, and soaking up as much nectar as possible. They take flight mid-day, stopping again at dusk to refuel again. They often fly south, then due west, making the overland journey to Mexico.
Black-Chinned hummingbirds have their own mating patterns that they have perfected over generations. Their nesting and mating season start in early spring, so this is an excellent time to see them in backyards and in city parks. Male and female hummingbirds make the trek north separately, with the males typically arriving one to two weeks before the females. The males stake out the best territory for mating, choosing the breeding grounds that have the best nectar-producing flowers and the best protection from predators.
The arrival of the female hummingbird marks the beginning of a species-preservation dance routine. The male will engage in showy flight in view of the females, looping and zig-zagging up to 150 feet in the air. Then, in dramatic fashion, they make a deep dive, swooping up just inches from the ground. Other makes sing, flap their wings and hum loudly. Female hummingbirds choose the male with the most food in his selected territory. Hummingbirds require large amounts of nectar—they eat their body weight in it—so they want to ensure there is enough nourishment to sustain themselves and the offspring.
Mating is quick, lasting only a few seconds, and afterward the female hummingbird sets about building the nest. A few days later, she lays two eggs that are about the size of peas. The eggs hatch within two to three weeks. There won’t be, however, any help from the male hummingbird when it comes to raising the chicks. He typically leaves right after mating and goes on to mate with new female hummingbirds elsewhere.
The baby hummingbirds will remain in the nest for up to 25 days, at which point they leave to find food on their own, continuing the cycle.
It’s a rare treat to see an Allen’s hummingbird, as they typically take up residence in California during the spring, and summer and spend the fall and winter in Mexico. In recent years, they have been making their way east, and a few have been spotted across Virginia. Often mistaken for the Rufous hummingbird, the Allen’s has a green, instead of coppery back. The male has a reddish-orange throat, a brownish-red rump and a pointed tail feather with a black tip.
Allen’s hummingbirds often eat almost their entire body weight in food, and they can go into a state similar to hibernation to preserve their energy. When food supply is low, they simply slow down their rate of metabolism and drop their body temperature.
Even though they have unusually high metabolic rates, they have a long lifespan, as compared to other birds. While many die within the first weeks of life between the time that they hatch and the time they leave the nest, the ones that do survive can live up to a decade or longer. This is impressive considering the arduous journey they make each year during the fall and spring migration season. In North America, the average lifespan, however, is closer to 3-5 years.
Allen’s hummingbirds measure between 3-5 inches in length, with the smallest in the species measuring just two inches long. Most species weigh less than one pound, with the largest weighing about 0.85 ounces. Males are typically larger than females, as is common with most hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds in Virginia have made the state their home, and these beautiful creatures will make their homes in your trees, shrubs and yards, fueling for great journeys and doing the work of keeping the species alive for generations to come. Giving them the fuel they need to keep up this evolutionary dance will reward you with their presence in your backyard, and feeding them will bring mutual benefit for both bird and human.
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