Chapel Hill: Community

Mary Sonis: Hummingbird don’t fly away

Have you noticed that a hummingbird flies vertically instead of horizontally? It zips around facing the world like a human wearing a jet pack.
Have you noticed that a hummingbird flies vertically instead of horizontally? It zips around facing the world like a human wearing a jet pack. MARY SONIS

Just as this ruby-throated hummingbird has carried away a salvia blossom, so have I been carried away by the last gasps of the summer season.

Every schoolchild knows that the new year does not arrive on January 1. The new year begins in late August, when cool night breezes presage the start of a new school year. It produces a kind of melancholy in children and adults alike.

The freedom of summer is ending. The easy, long days that stretched out so lavishly before us in June, have come to an end. There will be strict schedules, assignments, deadlines, worksheets, essays, quizzes, and tests that will fill every waking hour. In our house this produces a frenzy to wrest the last drops of freedom from every single day. I say yes to every request for a day at the pool, or Jordan Lake, or any location where summer might be found. Driving to Maple View for ice cream at sunset? Why yes, of course. Summer is slipping away. We mustn’t miss anything!

This spirit of extracting the last drops of summer infuses my quests for wildlife subjects to observe and photograph at this end of season. I am relentless. Morning to night, I am trail walking for hours, and on rainy days, I photograph from the window of my car, wandering slowly from one subdivision to another. Neighbors look at me quizzically, when they see the long snout of my camera trained on the most abundant summer gardens that the neighborhood offers. The birds have fledged their young. Nests are empty, but the challenge of the new year is still ahead for the tiny residents that frequent the glorious gardens of lantana, salvia, and butterfly weed. Our local ruby-throated hummingbirds are stocking up on food before their migration south to winter-feeding grounds.

Hummingbirds are considered the most beloved of all our avian residents. There are dozens of websites that offer information and photographs of these birds, and there are even festivals in various towns that offer hummingbird tours of gardens devoted entirely to the support of Hummingbirds.

I am often asked how hummingbirds live on nectar, or the sugar water offered at feeders. Nectar is a mixture of sucrose, glucose, and fructose that includes trace minerals and protein. Feeders are stocked with pure sucrose water. Both formulas are fuel for the furnace, and the hummingbird can easily run the machine on both types of fuel. Protein comes from the occasional ingestion of insects and other arthropods that the Hummingbird snatches from the air or finds on vegetation. It is estimated that the diet of a Hummingbird consists of 75 percent nectar and 25 percent insects. Nestling hummingbirds are fed more insects because they require greater quantities of protein in order to grow.

It is probably the combination of beauty and acrobatics that we find most thrilling in the hummingbird. Unlike most wildlife, the hummingbird is very willing to engage with humans. With patience, these tiny birds will hover close to us, and drink nectar from our hands, so they are easy to observe in action.

The fast facts on these birds:

• Hummingbirds can fly at speeds of up to 60 mph; they can also hover at a standstill, fly upside down, and backward.

• The wings of this bird can move at rates of 60 to 200 beats per second.

• Hummingbirds can consume up to twice their weight in nectar in one day.

• In migration, our ruby-throated hummingbirds will fly 600 miles over the Gulf of Mexico without rest or food.

• The longest living hummingbird on record was a 9-year-old female, but hummingbirds of both sexes can live approximately five or six years.

• Hummingbirds do not suck up nectar, but lap up nectar from a long divided tongue with a brushy tip. This action occurs at 20 times per second, and the brush end of the tongue aids the bird in capturing insects midair.

These facts can’t possibly contain all the nuances of evolution that have come together to produce this miraculous bird.

Imagine the economy of form that is required to produce a creature with such superior flying capabilities.

Along the evolutionary path, a great deal has occurred to streamline this missile. Anything not absolutely necessary has been eliminated. The hummingbird has no gall bladder, or bladder. Female Hummers have one ovary, and male hummingbirds have no penis.

The tibiotarsus of a hummingbird is so short that walking or hopping is virtually impossible. They are classified as “Apodiformes” which translates to “no feet.” This of course in a misnomer, as the hummingbird has quite perfect little feet that are excellent for perching, but their legs prevent them from walking a single step.

The wings of the bird are attached by a ball and socket joint that rotates so well, that the wing has unusual flexibility at a wide range of angles. Have you noticed that a hummingbird flies vertically instead of horizontally? It zips around facing the world like a human wearing a jet pack. Sometimes, while in my car, a hummingbird will suddenly appear and hover directly in front of my face. It reminds me of the way George Clooney appeared in his jet pack at the porthole of Sandra Bullock’s spaceship in the movie “Gravity.”

The startling appearance usually includes a series of chirruping squeaks to remind me that the territory is occupied. On one occasion, a hummingbird flew into my car, and perched on the very end of my camera lens. I was powerless to record the moment, but the encounter was mesmerizing.

As I wander through Carrboro attempting to capture the last fleeting beauty of our summer days, I find myself repeating a line from Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet. “… Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at