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Small but mighty hummingbirds will soon be back in North Iowa

By Bailey Dohlman, Conservation Education Intern, Lime Creek Nature Center

With the arrival of spring, hummingbirds will soon be back in North Iowa. Hummingbirds migrate each year spending their winters in Central and South America. When the temperatures rise, these birds head back north to their breeding grounds. Iowa typically starts to see hummingbirds in late April to early May.

Hummingbirds are native to the Americas with over 300 species overall. Of those 300 species only 23 are found in North America and only 5 species have ever been documented in Iowa. While Iowa has seen a few rare sightings of other species of hummingbird, the Ruby-throated hummingbird is the most common as it is abundant in all 99 counties. This hummingbird is very flashy as they are iridescent emerald green, and the males have a ruby-red throat. These birds are easily identifiable even with their small size of less than four inches.

Hummingbirds are nectar eaters. They have long beaks and an even longer tongue to eat nectar from tubular flowers. While nectar is the largest part of their diet, hummingbirds do supplement their diet with insects. They tend to steal insects from spider webs or those caught in tree sap. Each day they consume about half of their body weight in nectar and insects. Hummingbirds have a very high metabolism and spend most of their day eating just to survive. At night, they fall into a state of torpor. When in torpor, the birds heart rate and body temperature drop to conserve energy.

These birds are expert fliers as well. Hummingbirds can average around 53 wing beats per second. They can fly forward, backward, sideways, straight up, and can hover for long periods of time. This is more flight ability than any other bird. What is unique to a hummingbird’s flight pattern is they move their wings in a horizontal figure eight compared to upward and downward motion on other birds. Another adaption these birds possess to help with flight is short legs. Hummingbird legs are small enough to tuck under their body during flight to reduce drag. They cannot walk on their legs, only scoot sideways and perch. With that, hummingbirds spend most of their flying time hovering to eat.

With their need to eat frequently and their love for nectar, they are easily attracted to feeders. Feeders are also a great way to draw in and enjoy the hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are attracted to red and orange, so these colors should be incorporated into the feeder. In the feeders, a sugar-water solution should be placed with a 1:4 ratio, such as ¼ cup sugar to one cup water. There is no need to color the water as the colors on the feeders are sufficient. It is important to change the water often as hot weather can ferment it and cause it to be toxic.

Other great ways to bring in these small but mighty birds is the planting of native species, especially those with tubular flowers. It is also important to have a continuous bloom of flowers to attract hummingbirds all season. Planting small trees and shrubs can provide a resting place for the hummingbirds as well.

As the temperatures continue to rise, be on the lookout for these amazing birds. They may be small but with their flashy colors and the buzzing of their quick wings, hummingbirds are easy to spot. If you want to keep them around, provide some sugar water and you will be able to see all the amazing attributes these birds have.

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