Birds – Ruby-throated Humming-bird

(Trochilus colubris) Humming-bird family

Length—3.5 to 3.75 inches. A trifle over half as long as the English sparrow. The smallest bird we have.

Male—Bright metallic green above; wings and tail darkest, with ruddy-purplish reflections and dusky-white tips on outer tail-quills. Throat and breast brilliant metallic-red in one light, orange flame in another, and dusky orange in another, according as the light strikes the plumage. Sides greenish; underneath lightest gray, with whitish border outlining the brilliant breast. Bill long and needle-like.

Female—Without the brilliant feathers on throat; darker gray beneath. Outer tail-quills are banded with black and tipped with white.

Range—Eastern North America, from northern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico in summer. Winters in Central America. Migrations—May. October. Common summer resident.

This smallest, most exquisite and unabashed of our bird neighbors cannot be mistaken, for it is the only one of its kin found east of the plains and north of Florida, although about four hundred species, native only to the New World, have been named by scientists. How does it happen that this little tropical jewel alone flashes about our Northern gardens ? Does it never stir the spirit of adventure and emulation in the glistening breasts of its stay-at-home cousins in the tropics by tales of luxuriant tangles of honeysuckle and clematis on our cottage porches; of deep-cupped trumpet-flowers climbing over the walls of old-fashioned gardens, where larkspur, narcissus, roses, and phlox, that crowd the box-edged beds, are more gay and honey-laden than their little brains can picture? Apparently it takes only the wish to be in a place to transport one of these little fairies either from the honeysuckle trellis to the canna bed or from Yucatan to the Hudson. It is easy to see how to will and to fly are allied in the minds of the humming-birds, as they are in the Latin tongue. One minute poised in midair, apparently motionless before a flower while draining the nectar from its deep cup—though the humming of its wings tells that it is suspended there by no magic —the next instant it has flashed out of sight as if a fairy’s wand had made it suddenly invisible. Without seeing the hummer, it might be, and often is, mistaken for a bee improving the ” shining hour.”

At evening one often hears of a ” humming-bird ” going the rounds of the garden, but at this hour it is usually the sphinx-moth hovering above the flower-beds-the one other creature be-sides the bee for which the bird is ever mistaken. The postures and preferences of this beautiful large moth make the mistake a very natural one.

The ruby-throat is strangely fearless and unabashed. It will dart among the vines on the veranda while the entire household are assembled there, and add its hum to that of the conversation in a most delightfully neighborly way. Once a glistening little sprite, quite undaunted by the size of an audience that sat almost breathless enjoying his beauty, thrust his bill into one calyx after another on a long sprig of honeysuckle held in the hand.

And yet, with all its friendliness—or is it simply fearlessness? —the bird is a desperate duellist, and will longe his deadly blade into the jewelled breast of an enemy at the slightest provocation and quicker than thought. All the heat of his glowing throat seems to be transferred to his head while the fight continues, sometimes even to the death—a cruel, but marvellously beautiful sight as the glistening birds dart and tumble about beyond the range of peace-makers.

High up in a tree, preferably one whose knots and lichen-covered excrescences are calculated to help conceal the nest that so cleverly imitates them, the mother humming-bird saddles her exquisite cradle to a horizontal limb. She lines it with plant-down, fluffy bits from cat-tails, and the fronds of fern, felting the material into a circle that an elm-leaf amply roofs over. Out-side, lichens or bits of bark blend the nest so harmoniously with its surroundings that one may look long and thoroughly before discovering it. Two infinitesimal, white eggs tax the nest accommodation to its utmost.

In the mating season the female may be seen perching—a posture one rarely catches her gay lover inpreening her dainty but sombre feathers with ladylike nicety. The young birds do a great deal of perching before they gain the marvellously rapid wing-motions of maturity, but they are ready to fly within a week after they are hatched. By the time the trumpet-vine is in bloom they dart and sip and utter a shrill little squeak among the flowers, in company with the old birds.

During the nest-building and incubation the male bird keeps so aggressively on the defensive that he often betrays to a hitherto unsuspecting intruder the location of his home. After the young birds have to be fed he is most diligent in collecting food, that consists not alone of the sweet juices of flowers, as is popularly supposed, but also of aphides and plant-lice that his proboscis-like tongue licks off the garden foliage literally like a streak of lightning.

Both parents feed the young by regurgitation—a process disgusting to the human observer, whose stomach involuntarily revolts at the sight so welcome to the tiny, squeaking, hungry birds.