The ruby-throated hummingbird is the smallest bird in Minnesota, reaching a length of just over 3 inches from head to tail, with its straight, thin bill adding an inch. Its head, back, and sides are an iridescent green, and in males the iridescent throat feathers form a flashy color patch, or gorget, of ruby red. Females lack the gorget and are instead a smudgy white underneath from throat to tail. The iridescence is best observed in full sunlight. If you see a hummingbird on a cloudy day, its plumage may look dull and muted.
Forested areas, gardens, orchards, and even your backyard can serve as habitat for ruby-throated hummingbirds, as long as trees are present. While hummingbirds are often seen in the open gathering nectar from flowers or visiting hummingbird feeders, they rely on denser cover for roosting, and they build their tiny, inconspicuous cup nests along the branches of trees and taller shrubs.
Our hummingbirds are fans of warm weather. Since most of them spend their winters in Central America, don't expect to see any in Minnesota until the first week of May, when the first migrants usually arrive in the southern part of the state. They breed throughout the eastern half of the United States, including all of Minnesota, and into central and eastern Canada. They begin to migrate south as early as mid-August, and most leave the state by the end of September—although stragglers are found well into October most years.
Don't be fooled by its diminutive size! A male ruby-throated hummingbird fiercely defends its territory against other males and even bigger birds up to the size of a hawk. During courtship or chase flights, you'll often hear high-pitched chips and squeaks in addition to the humming sound produced by the bird's wings that can reach a rate of 200 wingbeats per second. Tempers may cool a bit in fall as the birds begin to migrate south, when many hummingbirds congregate while they fatten up on flower nectar and small insects.
If you want to attract hummingbirds to your backyard, the best thing to do is plant tubular flowers like cardinal flower or bergamot, which are favorites of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Flowers native to Minnesota are best, but noninvasive garden flowers and cultivars are also acceptable. You may also consider putting up a hummingbird feeder, which works doubly well if your yard is already planted with the right flowers. Simply mix one part granulated sugar to four parts water and fill the feeder. Change out or refill the liquid once a week, especially during hot weather. As long as some part of the feeder is red, you don't need to add food coloring, which may harm the birds.
Bob Dunlap , DNR zoologist