For the Birds Radio Program: Hummingbirds
How many times does a hummingbird flap on its flight over the Gulf of Mexico?
Now that it’s August, suddenly hummingbirds are everywhere. This year’s babies are pretty much on their own now, building up their muscles and fat reserves for their first migration. Adult females are replenishing their bodies after grueling weeks of raising babies. And adult males are on the move. They aren’t responsible for raising babies just for keeping other hummingbirds away from the flowers on their territory, so their mates won’t have to travel far from the babies to find food. That means that all summer the adult males can be preparing their bodies for an early migration. They strike out in early August, before too many flowers go to seed, so there will be plenty of food for their hungry babies and mates. Adult females also leave as soon as their bodies are ready.
Even though August is a season of abundance, little by little flowers are disappearing, and after all the work of raising the babies, mothers hardly want to eat up the food their babies need.
And so by the end of August just about the only hummingbirds remaining in North Country will be the young of this year. They’re inexperienced and vulnerable in many ways, but they instinctively know to look for the colors red and orange, which in the natural world often set off flowers that produce rich supplies of nectar. Of course, the natural world in most places has given way to many human alterations, so sometimes red and orange aren’t such good indicators of food. I’ve had immature hummingbirds fly to my red hat, a red ball on my picnic table, and even my red car–perhaps the ultimate example of youthful optimism.
Hummingbirds migrate by day, relentlessly heading south but dropping down to feed whenever they find appropriate food. Once they make it to the Gulf Coast, they fatten up as much as they possibly can, and then one by one they choose a morning to head out over the coast. If they start out in Texas or Louisiana, the shortest distance they must cover to reach the Yucatan Peninsula is over 600 miles. Since they fly about 29 miles per hour in steady flight, give or take the effects of the wind, it takes them at least 21 hours to cross the water, and considering that their wings beat a minimum of 50 flaps per second, that means they must flap at least 5,220,000 times just crossing the Gulf of Mexico. At best they will be flying after dark, sometimes well into their second day, without a break. It’s strictly a myth that they can rest on the backs of other birds-they make this entire arduous journey on their own. When they reach Mexico they’re exhausted and depleted of just about all their body fat. In bad conditions, sometimes they’ve even resorbed some of their muscle tissue.
All this is amazing, and it’s hardly a once-in-a-lifetime event. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds undergo this feat twice a year. Considering that a banded wild Ruby throat lived to be 9 years I month, that individual made this migration 18 times in its life. And perhaps some hummingbirds not stupid enough to be caught twice by a bander have done the migration even more. Sometimes when I’m going through a difficult time in my own life, I think about these amazing and miraculous creatures, striking out over that huge expanse of water during hurricane season, nowhere to land, nothing holding them aloft but their faith in tomorrow.