Hummingbirds: Unique and beautiful

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird lives up to its why it has its name. Specialized feathers on its throat are called gorgets and can be manipulated by the bird to expand fan-like to show off a colorful display. Feather iridescence is the dominate component of plumage color of most hummingbirds. These shimmering changeable hues are created by a common pigment melanin. For these bird, melanin becomes a structural element used to reflect and refract light. The pigment is enclosed in very tiny platelets, each with minute air bubbles that act like prisms, breaking white light into its component colors. Hummingbirds use all the feathers on their body, wings and tail to telegraph messages to other hummingbirds. Being very territorial, food sources are protected in this manner.


Today’s featured creature is the Ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris. It is the primary hummingbird likely to be seen east of the Missouri River. Its breeding range is all of the eastern portions of the United States. This species is also a long distance traveler each spring when it leaves Central American wintering areas to return to North America. There is one big obstacle to cross, and that is the Gulf of Mexico, a 500 mile non-stop journey over open water. To make the journey, the bird must fuel up and by the time it reaches the coastline, it will have depleted a good share of that fuel. Now its northward journey will have lots of new spring growth and flowers to select from to replenish daily calorie needs. The average arrival date in Iowa for Ruby-throats is between April 21 and May 1. Departure dates from Iowa to return toward wintering areas is around Oct. 1.

There are 17 species of hummingbirds that breed in the United States and Canada. They represent approximately 5 percent of the world’s various hummingbirds. Their range expansion follows the geologic time scale of glacier retreats. Since we are living comfortably in the present inter-glacial period, the birds also over thousands of years time have followed flowering plant zones north as glacial ice melted northward. Hummingbirds tend to be generalists with regard to foods or may specialize to create a unique plant/bird pollinating requirement for the host. What they eat in the form of nectar assists with pollination needs of many plants.

There is an interdependence between these birds conducting pollinator services that contributes significantly to the structure and composition of forests, woodlands, deserts and alpine meadows.

Hummingbird flight can be fast and follow erratic pathways, not just a straight line point A to B task. Their ability to hover makes them unique. Tiny wing muscles and special flexible joints in the shoulder area even allow the bird to maneuver right to left, backwards and up and down very accurately to position themselves at a flower nectar source. They are miniature helicopters running on sugar.

Nectar may not contain any more than 30 percent sugar on average so frequent trips to and from food sources is a normal thing. Its daily requirements are complex due to air temperature, quality of available, time of the year. A bird may need more than one and a half times its body weight in nectar each day. At night, the bird will enter a torpor state of lower metabolic consumption, then wake up at dawn to repeat its hunt for more nectar.

So the next time you observe any hummingbird, you are offered the privilege of seeing one of Mother Nature’s smallest birds in action. They are unique and they are beautiful to see. Enjoy them while September lasts. By month’s end, they will be headed south.

By mid month, the skies over the Iowa River valley and specifically the Grammer Grove Wildlife Area, will be filled with migrating birds of prey. These are the large birds which are easier to observe. There will be hundreds of Broad-wing Hawks to see if you can be there at the right time. Eagles, turkey vultures, falcons, kestrels, lots of other hawk species will be duly noted by avid bird watchers. While these big birds are making their way southward, lots of much smaller species, many migrating at night, will be moving southward. River valleys are excellent corridors for all kinds of winged critters. As fall progresses, watch and listen for kingbirds, flycatchers, swallows, wrens, catbirds, thrushes, vireos, and many kinds of warblers. Grammer Grove’s hiking trails are worth your time to hike, to see and to hear what is taking place in Mother Nature’s great outdoors.

Contribute to Iowa River Hospice on Sept. 15 at the Marshall County chapter grounds of the Izaak Walton League. Ten stations of 10 clay birds per shooter will be set in a woodland setting. The course will test the sport shooter’s eye and hand coordination in a fun type of way. This is not a registered sporting clay event. It is a fun event with all the proceeds given to a worthy charity. Registration opens at 9 a.m. and the first sets of shooting teams can begin the course at 9:30 a.m. Food will be available at the Ikes clubhouse. A sporting clay bird shoot is just one excellent practice prior to the opening of upland game bird seasons. The location is two miles south of Iowa Avenue on Smith Avenue on the southeast side of Marshalltown.

Alaska will be the subject of a special program at 7 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the Izaak Walton League clubhouse. This is a members appreciation fall event with good food and fellowship. Tom Ohlfest will present a slide show of he and his wife’s vacation this past summer to Fairbanks, Denali, the Inside Passage and more. Alaska is one of the places to travel to that is on a lot of people’s bucket list. And when they get there and see the amazing scenery and special wildlife, a common thought is “why did I wait so long to go to Alaska?” Come and see for yourself what the Ikes property has to offer and enjoy and learn from the people that help keep this outdoor space available for members.

To learn what is legal and ethical concerning Iowa’s hunting and trapping regulations for 2019-20, a small booklet is available at many license vendor outlets. It is a summary of what is new and what is more traditional regarding the rules and regulations for lawful taking of upland game, waterfowl, deer and furbearing animals. For those who are avid hunters, the publication contains updates of season dates going into this fall.

Tyson Brown, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer for Marshall and Grundy counties, always gets lots of questions about details. It is good to ask ahead of time and not wait until an opening day to find out. Brown would rather you visit with him before hand to get explanations about why the law reads as it does. Compliance with Iowa fish and game laws is easy. Just know in advance what is required as an ethical law abiding citizen. If clarification on any subject is needed or you are still left scratching your head, ask him. His contact number is 641-751-5246. That way you get correct answers that will help keep you and your hunting partners on the legal side of the equation at all times.

Iowa is a partner in the Wildlife Violator Compact. The agreement between conservation law enforcement agencies in the Unites States prohibits a person whose privileges are suspended in one state from participating in those activities in another state. Delaware, Massachusetts and Hawaii are in the process of officially joining the 47 states already in the system. Information between conservation law enforcement departments is shared and available for inquiries from other states to know if a person has a history of unlawful fish and game related actions. Crimes committed against wildlife range from small to large, all depending upon the offenders habits and the extent of greed involved. These few give the bulk of legal followers of the law a bad name. Trying to weed out the bad guys from the masses is part of every citizens job. Conservation Officers need your tips and information to assist them with their job. Turn In Poachers 24/7 hotline to make calls about suspicious wildlife activities is 800-532-2020. Rewards may be forthcoming if the tip leads to arrests and conviction by a court. Be safe outdoors this fall and always be aware of the law and follow it.

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

— Randy Paush, computer scientist and writer


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.