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Hunting for Hummingbirds

Apr 04, 2013 12:41PM ● By Scott Blackwell

The Broad-tailed species is often considered the classic hummingbird, with its trilling/buzzing sound often louder than other species'.

Hunting for Hummingbirds

Story and Photos by Sue Isley

 What single word would you use to describe hummingbirds? Amazing? Beautiful? Acrobatic? Or maybe aggressive? Territorial? Or noisy? And that’s just for starters.

Hummers, as they are often called, are strictly New World birds, meaning they’re found nowhere other than the Americas. Ornithologists have identified more than 320 species of hummingbirds (and related sub-species) that inhabit parts of North, Central and South America.

Although the greatest variety and populations are found near the equator (Columbia and Ecuador), North America has been blessed with a variety of hummers that spend at least part of the year in this country, especially the Southwest. And every North American species migrates southward for the winter to Mexico or the southernmost parts of California, Arizona and New Mexico and the Gulf Coast, then fly north in the spring to nest and breed.

Migratory patterns are species-specific, and some are truly amazing. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird has been known to migrate from Mexico to the eastern United States via the Gulf of Mexico. And the Rufous Hummingbird often travels from Mexico to southern Alaska.

While most hummingbirds do not travel such long distances, they do tend to be highly territorial and aggressive toward one another. They seem to spend much of their time and energy defending their territories, including food sources. Thus, if you watch hummingbirds at a feeder, you’re likely to witness considerable fighting and chattering, with one or two dominant birds attempting to keep others at bay.

Combine their behavior with a host of other characteristics unique among other birds, as well as our ability to attract the fanciful creatures with ease, and you’ve got a warm-weather winner as close as your own backyard.

Like Little Jewels

The smallest of all known birds is the 2¼-inch Bumblebee Hummingbird of Cuba. And most of the species found in the Southwest aren’t much bigger, measuring about an inch longer.

But what hummers lack in size, they more than make up for in plumage that often appears iridescent, metallic or even “jewel-like.” Males are the most vibrant. Many exhibit bright, iridescent patches on or near their throats called gorgets. Though they vary in size and color, depending on the species, the gorgets can be difficult to detect until light strikes the throat feathers at just the right angle. At times, the true color of a gorget is little more than a flash to observers. Many North American hummingbird species, such as the Rufous and the Broad-tailed, sport brilliant red/scarlet gorgets. The Black-chinned hummingbird displays a brilliant purple or violet patch.

Both males and females have iridescent feathers on their backs, heads and tails. This iridescence is because of tiny components in the feathers that refract light waves, thereby producing different colored lighting effects. Pigmentation of each feather also plays a role in color variations. For hummers found in New Mexico, the predominant color is metallic green, although the Rufous has a bright rust or reddish-brown color.

Nurturing Voracious Appetites

Long, pointed bills, make it easy for hummingbirds to feast on their favorite food – flower nectar. Bright floral colors like red, yellow, orange and purple and blue will attract hummingbirds. While hummers derive the bulk of their sustenance from plant nectar, they also eat gnats, aphids and mosquitos, which comprise about 10% of their diet. They often capture their winged prey while in flight, a process known as “hawking.”

Hummingbird expert and enthusiast Tony Tilford reports that, in order to maintain adequate energy requirements, hummingbirds need to consume multiple times their body weight in nectar on a daily basis, and in so doing may visit as many as 1,000 flowers a day! Expert Stan Tekiela says hummers can die in less than five hours if they are active but unable to secure food. Ideally, says Tekiela, hummers will feed more than half a dozen times per minute, each meal lasting about five seconds. Given these requirements, it is easy to see why hummers need a plethora of flowers, and why they’ll readily accept human handouts through artificial feeders.

Jack Meloy, a volunteer at the Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque, maintained the feeders there for 12 years, putting them out in early-mid April and keeping them up through mid-October.

“At the beginning of the season, I used pint-sized bottles, and gradually increased the size and number of feeders over the course of the following months. At the height of the season, around May and June, I maintained six 1-gallon feeders, and each one required 6 cups of sugar each time it was refilled,” reports Meloy. He added that it was necessary to refill each feeder every two or three days. “It is during the early summer (prior to monsoon season) that hummingbirds in New Mexico are highly dependent on the artificial sources of nectar, so it is important that we try to provide it for them,” says Meloy. He estimates that the Nature Center uses an average of 175 pounds of sugar, resulting in 206 gallons of nectar, during any given hummingbird season.

Are the recent drought conditions of New Mexico influencing hummingbird populations? Sandia Crest House manager Gene Romero notes that many bird species, including hummingbirds, have been adversely affected by the drought. Romero, who maintains regular contact with the Forest Service in the Sandia area, reports that the drought will likely result in closure of the Sandias at some point during the upcoming summer, as it did last summer. “It's not a question of if, but when, says Romero. The drought also makes the hummingbirds more reliant on artificial food sources.

“They came in swarms,” reports Romero, who has been responsible for feeding the hummingbirds for the past decade. “Every morning, they are there waiting for us to refill the feeders.” During the peak season, three separate quart-sized feeders were refilled up to three times a day. According to Romero, the birds would consume as much as 50 pounds of sugar every 2 – 3 weeks. Last year, only two feeders were used because of the declining populations, and during the closure of the Sandia Mountains, the birds were not fed as regularly as they would have been had the Crest House remained open. When business resumed, Romero noticed that the number of birds had declined, and he feared many had died.

Contrary to popular belief, hummingbirds do not spend every waking hour in search of food. Like any other animal, they need to rest periodically. At night, hummers are capable of dramatically slowing their metabolisms (heart-rate and breathing), and typically enter a dormant, almost lifeless state called torpor in efforts to conserve energy.

Beat This!

Perhaps the single most remarkable characteristic of hummingbirds is their wing design and flight capabilities. Without contest, they have the fastest wing-beat rate of any bird. At 80 – 200 beats per second, wings are just a blur to the human eye. Their rapid flapping causes the “humming” sound, from whence the birds’ name is derived. Tekiela also notes that most hummers can cruise at 30 mph. During courtship routines or when chasing rival birds, speeds can reach 60 mph.

Hummers can stop, start, turn, twist, somersault and even fly backwards, up-side down and sideways. And, of course, one of their most notable accomplishments is their ability to hover while sipping nectar or sugar water. So specially designed, the hummingbird’s tiny feet are useful only for perching. Walking or hopping is impossible.

What enables hummingbirds to achieve these miracles of flight? These abilities stem largely from the design and structure of the wings themselves. While most birds have wing muscles that account for 15 – 25 percent of their body weight, both Tekiela and Tilford report that the hummingbird's flight muscles account for about 30 percent of their body weight. During flight, hummers tend to keep their wings stiff; movement, including rotation of the wing, occurs primarily at the shoulder. The wings are able to swivel in their sockets, often moving in a figure-eight pattern.

During courtship, hummingbirds display unique flight patterns, many involving a repeated U-shaped swooping or diving. Males perform these aerial acrobatics in front of females that are perched nearby. With each succeeding repetition, the male rises increasingly higher, up to 30 feet. At the same time, the males typically vocalize with a kind of chittering, insect-type sound. Male Calliopes may fly as high as 90 feet in their attempts to woo a mate.

Local Favorites

There are four main species of hummingbirds that spend at least a portion of their lives in New Mexico. Two species of hummers regularly breed, nest and raise their families in the state: the Black-chinned and the Broad-tailed hummingbirds. The Rufous and the tiny Calliope hummingbird are part-time or migratory inhabitants.

If you live in and around Albuquerque, it is fairly easy to spot Black-chinned Hummers; if you live in the more mountainous areas, the Broad-tailed is more common. Rufous hummingbirds often spend time in both areas, as they take their time heading south for the winter. Calliopes have also been sited in both areas, though are more common in mountainous areas.

If you have experienced difficulty distinguishing one species from another, don't feel alone. While adult males are fairly easy to distinguish from one another, correctly identifying females and juveniles is challenging. Often the best indicator is where the birds are sited, though even this strategy is not foolproof.

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) is a frequent inhabitant of the lower elevations. They spend the warmer months ranging from as far north as British Columbia to as far south as the desert Southwest. Most often spotted in urban gardens and outdoor feeders, they are attracted to a variety of flowering plants, and are viewed as crucial in the pollination process.  

Both males and females average about 3 inches in length, and have metallic green backs, though females often appear brownish or grayish-white in color, with white bellies. The male has a black chin or throat, the bottom portion of which is bordered by an iridescent patch of bluish-purple which is visible only when sunlight strikes it at just the right angle; otherwise, the throat appears black in color. Females and immature males often exhibit speckles/spots on the throat area.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycerus) is often considered the “classic” hummingbird. At 3.5 – 4 inches in length, Broad-tails exhibit the characteristic metallic-green back and tail feathers. The adult male has a bright red/scarlet gorget, while females and immatures have spotted/speckled throats. Broad-tails prefer mountainous regions in the warmer months.

Males are also identifiable by the sound of their “wing thrills,” a high-pitched trilling/buzzing sound that’s louder and more distinctive than those of other species. Author Lynn Kaufman says this sound is often heard during migrations and courtship rituals, and is also characteristic of their aggressive behavior when defending their territories. Or as Gene Romero quips: “Hummingbirds hum because they can't sing.”

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is known for its feisty personality and constant “chatter.” The Rufous is somewhat of a migrant inhabitant of New Mexico. They have one of the most extensive and dramatic migratory patterns of all hummingbirds. Adult males begin leaving their winter homes in Mexico as early as March, and generally migrate up the Pacific Coast, often ending up as far north as southern Alaska! Females follow a bit later, and the birds nest and raise their young in areas of the Pacific Northwest. During their return migration they pass through the inland mountainous regions of the West, and have been known to linger in the region for weeks, even months, as they eventually make their return trip southward.

The Rufous averages about 3.5 inches in length and appears more “chunky” than other species. Males’ predominant “rufous” (rust/reddish-brown) coloration makes them easy to spot. Some have metallic-green splotches on their backs, but all have a green crown. They also have a white “collar” just below the bright red-orange gorget. Females and immature males are more difficult to distinguish from other hummer species, are duller in color than the males, though all exhibit the characteristic rufous coloring on their sides and tails. Speckles or spots on the throat are also characteristic of this species, and immature males typically exhibit partial red-orange gorgets as they approach their first molt.

Calliope Hummingbird (Stellula calliope) is the smallest of the hummingbirds in North America at about 3 inches. Despite its size, the Calliope withstands the alpine temperatures of the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies and mountainous New Mexico throughout the warmer months.

  Males are particularly easy to distinguish from other species because of their unique gorget. While the gorgets of most male hummers have solid patches of feathers, those of the Calliope form rays or streaks of bright scalet, almost like the rays of the sun or stars. The genus name is derived from the Latin word (stellula) meaning “little star.” Both sexes have backs, heads and tails of metallic green, with buff- (light brown) colored sides and bellies. Females and juveniles both have spotted/speckled throats. The bills of the Calliope tend to be shorter than those of other NM species.

Hummers: Here We Are!

Sandia Mountain Crest House is among the best spots to see most of the hummers frequenting New Mexico. Located at the top of the Sandia Mountains about an hour east of Albuquerque, the gift shop/snack bar employees, under the direction of Romero, maintain feeders that attract at least three species of hummingbirds between late April and early October. Broad-tails here are most common, but the Rufous and occasional Calliope have also been sited.

If Black-chins are your game, visit the Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque. Volunteers maintain the feeders in this area that also attracts the occasional Rufous and Calliope. Another public venue that provides both feeders and native plants that attract hummingbirds is the Albuquerque BioPark.

Many ranger/forest service stations throughout the state also provide feeders to attract hummingbirds. Stations at El Malpais and the Gila Wilderness are quite popular.

Those of us who live in New Mexico are fortunate to have these little “flying jewels” as part of our environment. We can only hope that the drought will not be so severe that the hummers will continue to visit New Mexico. Maintaining feeding stations will likely help to ensure that the hummers will successfully endure these extreme conditions. Enjoy and delight in them whenever you can!

– Sue Isley moved to Albuquerque almost seven years ago, and became seriously interested in hummingbirds about 5 years ago. Eager to be able capture their images and essences digitally, she persuaded her husband that she needed a DSLR camera in order to be able to “get up close and personal” with hummers, and to “freeze their wings.” Her new interest has been fueled and rewarded by the many photographic opportunities she has discovered in and around the Albuquerque area. She photographs hummingbirds only in natural environments, without the use of artificial lighting. She is so enamored with hummingbirds that she has painted them on the walls in one of the bedrooms in her home.