For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds

Original Air Date: May 21, 1986

A tiny, pugnacious bird with a liquid diet as sweet as soda pop.

Duration: 3′01″


John Doe is a short and stubby American male, with more than one third of his weight in his chest muscles. His heart rate is 1260 beats per minute during moderate activity. He’s restricted to a liquid diet because of his abnormal metabolism, yet each day he gorges on twice his weight in liquids as sweet as soda pop. Is John headed for big trouble? Not at all. He’s just a typical hummingbird.

The smallest birds in the world are the hummingbirds. They are unique–the only birds that can fly backwards, straight up, and straight down. They don’t really hum–they get their name from the droning sound made by their wings in flight. They also make squeaky chipping noises as they fly.


Only one species of hummingbird is found in Minnesota–the Ruby- throated Hummingbird. The male has an iridescent throat. If the light hits it right, it glitters ruby-red, but in dull light can appear black. Females and young have white throats, sometimes streaked lightly with gray. All Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have green backs.

Tiny animals lose more body heat per ounce than large animals. A scientist once figured out the smallest size a warm-blooded animal could possibly be. He thought his calculations were all wrong because hummingbirds were smaller than the minimum. But, as it turns out, he was absolutely correct–it’s just that hummingbirds are not really warm- blooded the way most people mean. Hummingbirds can allow their temperatures to drop as much as 30 degrees at night and when resting in order to conserve energy. If a human’s temperature dropped that much, he’d be dead.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds winter in Mexico and Central America, presumably entertaining Sandinistas and Contras alike. They nest in the eastern United States and Canada–they get as far as Duluth by mid-May, when our weather can be notoriously lousy. Hummingbirds are badly stressed by cold and rain unless they have enough food. So setting out sugar water for them probably saves a lot of their lives.

If you want to feed hummingbirds, now is the time to start. Make a sugar water mixture of about one cup of sugar to four cups of water. Don’t use honey–a bacterium which poisons hummingbirds grows rapidly in honey.

Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. You don’t need to add red food coloring to your sugar water mixture if you use a store-bought feeder designed with red flowers. But if you put the sugar water in cereal bowls, better add coloring or the hummers won’t notice it.

Hummingbirds also feed at a lot of garden flowers–fuchsias, columbine, phlox, petunias, honeysuckle, lilies, and nasturtiums, to name just a few. A single one will visit as many as 1500 flowers a day, and may even check out the gardener if he’s wearing a red hat.


This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”