Excerpted from Armadillos to Ziziphus: A Naturalist in the Texas Hill Country by David Hillis, © 2023, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.

Across the Hill Country, feeders filled with sugar water are likely to attract lots of black-chinned and ruby-throated hummingbirds. You may even be lucky enough to spot one of our rarer migrants, such as a rufous or calliope hummingbird. Whichever species of hummer I encounter, it is usually the hum of their rapid flight that first catches my attention.

That sound never fails to bring a smile to my face, as I recall the joy I’ve experienced watching and listening to hummers from the shade of our front porch.

Our only regular nesting summer hummer is the black-chinned hummingbird, which is abundant locally. The birds arrive in our area in early to mid-March, and most of the adults have flown south by late summer, although the young often stay until early fall. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also common here as they migrate through in the spring and fall, but they mostly nest to our north and east. In the late summer and early fall, most of our hummers are young-of-the-year black-chinned hummingbirds that haven’t yet migrated, or ruby-throated hummingbirds passing through on their way south.

These birds have a long, specialized tongue that coils up inside the bird’s head when retracted. The retracted tongue may actually wrap around the skull and eyes inside the head, and then it can be extruded far beyond the tip of a hummingbird’s long pointed beak. When a hummingbird feeds, it extends its tongue deep into a tubular flower (or a feeder). The tip of the tongue is forked, and the sides of the tongue roll up to produce two tubelike structures to hold the nectar.

Biologists once thought that hummingbirds used their tubular tongues like a straw, to suck up nectar; however, recent high-speed videos of hummingbirds feeding show that is not the case. Instead, the hummingbird flattens the tubes of its tongue as it approaches a flower, then opens up the tubes as the tip of the tongue encounters nectar. The tongue acts like a pump that fills with nectar, which is then withdrawn into the bird’s mouth and emptied. A hummingbird fills and empties its tongue in this way about 15 to 20 times a second!

Most people think of hummingbirds largely as nectar feeders, as we typically see them feeding at flowers or hummingbird feeders. They do get lots of energy from nectar to support their active lifestyle, but hummingbirds can’t survive on a diet of only sugar. They also need protein, which they get by consuming large numbers of small insects and other invertebrates. Typical prey of hummers includes spiders, beetles, aphids, ants, mosquitoes, gnats, and other small flies.

Hummingbirds construct their tiny nests out of plant fibers, small twigs, pieces of leaves, and bits of lichen, all carefully woven together with spider silk. They will gather wood ash and lichens to cover their nests, which make them frustratingly hard to spot in the branches of trees and shrubs. Even though hummingbird nests are common in the trees around our homes, they are rarely seen, as they usually look like little more than a bump on a branch from below, and they are often covered by a canopy of leaves from above. If you search carefully in trees, you might spot one of these lichen-covered marvels of engineering 10 feet or more off the ground, often in the fork of a branch.

A hummingbird egg is about the size of a pinto bean, and females typically lay two in a nest. They are then incubated for 15 to 18 days before they hatch. Female hummingbirds handle all the care of the young, which they feed by regurgitating insects and nectar into the tiny nestlings’ beaks. The young grow rapidly, and the nest, thanks to the spider silk, is actually elastic enough that it expands to accommodate the growing nestlings. By 18 to 28 days after hatching, the young have developed enough to fledge the nest and begin feeding on their own.

Relative to body weight, the hummingbird brain is the largest of any bird’s (about 4.2 percent of the hummer’s body weight), although the absolute size of the brain is tiny (about 0.005 of an ounce for a black-chinned hummingbird). Hummers have excellent memories for the locations of flowers and other food sources they have visited. Their relatively large brains are also needed to control their remarkable flying skills, as they are the only birds that can fly straight up, down, sideways, and even backward—in addition to forward, of course. Although we typically see hummers as they hover in midair to feed on nectar from a flower or feeder, they can fly at about 25 to 30 miles per hour, even reaching speeds of about 50 miles per hour in a dive.

Each year, our hummingbirds must migrate to tropical parts of Mexico or Central America for the winter, where they can still find abundant flowers and insects for their diet. Our black-chinned hummingbirds mostly fly overland to Mexico, whereas many ruby-throated hummingbirds fly long distances across the Gulf of Mexico to reach Central America (especially on their northward flight; more individuals seem to fly along the coast when heading south). To make this nonstop flight of about 500 miles, they need to build up fat deposits by eating lots of spiders and insects. They double their body weight before migration and then lose about 60 percent of their preflight weight in making the long journey across the water. Moving north, hummers need to time their trip with the appearance of spring blossoms and insect hatches, as they will arrive nearly exhausted and must depend on available nectar and abundant insects for survival. Once they reach land, they continue moving north at about 20 miles a day, advancing with spring as flowers start to bloom. Hummingbirds return year after year to the same place they hatched; they live an average of about five years (although a few individuals can live up to a decade).

When they are active, hummingbirds have a very high metabolic rate and body temperature. In this state, they must feed constantly or they will rapidly lose body weight (as they do in long-distance migration). To conserve energy at night or in cold weather, hummingbirds can enter a state called torpor. They lock their feet on a perch, lower their body temperature, slow their heart rate to just a few beats per minute, and appear to be unconscious. While in torpor, they may even get knocked over and appear to be hanging upside down, but with their feet still clamped tightly on a perch. If you see a hummingbird in this state, leave it alone. It is not dead or injured, and it will recover and fly off when the conditions are favorable.

How to Bring Hummingbirds to Your Yard

Plant the right flowers. You want tubular flowers that produce a lot of nectar. One of their favorite flowers in our area is also a delight for gardeners: standing cypress. The seeds are easy to collect; they germinate readily across much of the Hill Country, and then the plant will self-seed wherever it grows well. Standing cypress is a biennial, meaning that usually it takes two years to bloom, so you may want to seed it for two successive years to get it established.

Several other popular native wildflowers produce abundant nectar and have flowers that attract hummers and butterflies. The various species of mints of the genus Monarda, such as lemon mint, spotted beebalm, and basil beebalm, also produce showy late spring flowers that are loved by hummingbirds and butterflies. Later in the spring and early summer, American basketflower produces beautiful and interesting pink flowers, and as a bonus, its seeds are relished by the northern bobwhite and other birds. 

Hang a hummingbird feeder. Make sure to use regular table sugar to make the nectar (a ratio of one part sugar to four parts water is standard). Don’t add any dyes, which are harmful to hummingbirds. Remember to clean the feeders and replace the sugar water daily, or toxic molds can grow that will harm the birds. Once the hummingbirds have left for the winter, remove and clean the feeders thoroughly, and then have them ready to fill again by mid-March.