Hummingbirds are a dazzling sight, but many of us only see them as full-grown adults. Because these energetic birds are so small, it is easy to miss them in their early stages of life. But the development of young hummingbirds is a wonder of the natural world — more evidence of the amazing abilities of these tiny feathered dynamos.
For this journey to begin, hummingbirds must mate. With more than 350 species found in the Western Hemisphere, hummingbirds' courtship rituals are incredibly diverse. Some involve a dance (see the Marvelous Spatuletail below), or an aerial diving display like the one executed by the Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Many male hummingbirds use these flashy performances to attract multiple mates throughout the breeding season.
So, what happens next? Despite young hummingbirds' elusiveness, scientists have learned much about their development. Read on to get answers to the most frequently asked questions about "baby hummingbirds," from feeding to first flight.
Female hummingbirds build their nests before mating, a process that takes less than a week. They generally use strands of spider web as a base to attach the nest to a branch or, less frequently, to a leaf or a rock crevice. Once complete, the nest is insulated, lined with thistle down, dandelion, or other soft plant materials. Exteriors are often decorated with lichens, which help camouflage the nest.
Hummingbird eggs are generally white, elliptical in shape, and tiny — about the size of a small jelly bean. Most weigh no more than a gram, or less than a paperclip! As with other birds, a hummingbird's life-cycle begins within an egg. After a pair mates, eggs take 24 to 30 hours to start developing in the female's body. Hummingbirds generally lay two eggs, one at a time, spaced one to two days apart. Unlike the many birds that share incubation duties between male and female, hummingbird females are almost always solely responsible for this task. Because eggs are so vulnerable to predators, the female spends most of her time on the nest, leaving only to find food and occasionally to preen. Hummingbird nestlings hatch from their eggs after approximately two weeks.
Hummingbirds breed at different times of the year, depending on where they live. For many North American hummingbirds, this happens in spring, after reaching their breeding grounds. In warmer climates, hummingbirds can have a very long breeding season. For example, the Anna's Hummingbird, which inhabits the West Coast of the United States and southern Canada, is known to start nesting in California in November, stopping as late as June.
Although many people might be tempted to use the word "baby" to describe the tiniest versions of the world's smallest birds, ornithologists call a newly hatched bird a nestling, hatchling, or chick. Hummingbirds hatch with their eyes closed and with almost no feathers. The pink- or gray-skinned chicks are incredibly small, most weighing less than a dime. Their feet are so tiny that the birds cannot stand. They are completely helpless and dependent on their mothers for food and warmth. The young birds don't grow a full set of feathers until they are around three weeks old.
"Baby hummingbirds" need a high-protein diet of insects to fuel fast growth and to develop strong bones and beaks. They also need nectar to meet their high-energy needs. The mother looks for food several times a day and feeds by regurgitating food into the chicks' mouths, a movement that looks similar to sword swallowing. She continues feeding her young until they are nearly one month old, or as long as 45 to 60 days old in some tropical species. After that time, they fend for themselves.
Hummingbirds can fly less than a month after hatching. At around two weeks old, "baby hummingbirds" start exercising their wings to prepare for their initial flights. Once they are ready to fly, they leave the nest, a process called fledging. Within a month (or up to two in some tropical species) after hatching, hummingbirds are independent, and those that are migratory are ready to strike out on their first journey.
ABC protects hummingbirds throughout their entire life-cycle. In the U.S., ABC helped establish the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Arizona, a space that educates the community about these wonderful birds. In Latin America, we work with partners and local communities to ensure there is habitat for the rarest species, including the Marvelous Spatuletail and the Blue-throated Hillstar. We support a reserve network with our partners that spans Latin America, covering more than 1 million acres and helping to protect 234 hummingbird species!
With our partners, ABC also conducts field expeditions to search for new, and monitor known, hummingbird populations. These efforts allow us to detect population changes and to identify new threats or land-use changes that might affect species and their habitats.
In the United States, we and our Joint Venture partners have improved conservation management on 6.4 million acres of U.S. bird habitat — an area larger than the state of Maryland — over the last ten years. We also work hard to promote bird-friendly legislation on national, state, and local levels.
We can all do our part to protect these spectacular creatures.
If you have a garden, you can help young hummingbirds by following eight simple steps. These include planting native flowering plants and reducing pesticide use. Learn more about these and other tips that can help female hummingbirds provide food for their chicks.
The next time you travel, visit one of the reserves in our conservation network. You can go to our Conservation Birding website to find destinations and information on birding routes, lodging, and reservations.
Finally, consider becoming a member of American Bird Conservancy. Your generous support will help us to continue and expand our work to safeguard hummingbirds.
|Erica J. Sánchez Vázquez is ABC's Digital Content Manager.|