Colorado hosts 2 breeding species of hummingbird—Broad-tailed and Black-chinned. Typically beginning to arrive back in our area in late April and early May, the males establish territories that they defend vigorously by chasing intruders. Once the females arrive, the males’ courtship displays begin with a vengeance. Both species engage in spectacular pendulum-like swooping flights around perched females. The male’s role in breeding is quite clear—mate with as many females as he can and then take off for more southerly climes. Females raise the young alone , building tiny nests of thistle and dandelion down, hair, feathers, and rootlets, with lichen or small bits of bark as camouflage. Spider webs provide the glue for these components—and also allow the tiny nests to stretch to accommodate the growing nestlings. Eggs—usually 2—are about the size of a small jelly bean. The young hatch after 16-19 days and leave the nest around 20 days after hatching. I stumbled on a nesting Broad-tail one summer when I was monitoring our nest boxes; Zell was able to take photos across several weeks. You can see the minuscule nest and the tiny nestlings here.
Because of their small size, hummingbirds count few predators in their lives (although a slightly gruesome photo of a preying mantis eating a hummer circulated around the Internet a few years ago). Collisions with objects during the vehement chasing defense forays are probably among the major threats to hummingbirds in the wild. Interestingly, a bird bander in Colorado recaptured a Broad-tailed Hummingbird in 2010 that had been first banded in 2001 and had hatched at least in 2000—an amazing 10 years old!
In addition, 2 other species spend time in Colorado following breeding—the Rufous Hummingbird and the Calliope Hummingbird. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are easily confused with the eastern Ruby-throated Hummingbird because of their brilliant red gorgets (feathers on the throat). Yet Broad-tails are more closely related to the brilliant orange-red Rufous Hummingbird. Interestingly, the dark-headed Black-chins are in the same family as the Ruby-throats, even though they don’t look that much alike. (This photo of a Black-chin is extraordinary in that you can actually see the purple “collar” at the end of the black “chin.” It’s very difficult to see that characteristic unless you are in the perfect light and the perfect place.) Finally, in its own family, the Calliope Hummingbird is the smallest breeding bird in North America; both males and females can be identified by their tiny size (only 3” long!) and very short tails (that don’t extend beyond the wingtips at rest). You can often spot them at your feeders because they have to stretch their necks out much more than the other hummers do just to reach the ports. Males have dramatic magenta gorget feathers that look like streamers.
Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds breed further north of our area. As soon as the males have mated, they hightail it south to get a jump start on migration. These birds appear in our area starting in early and mid-July. A few weeks after the migrating males appear, the females and fledglings begin to show up too. Things can really start hopping around your feeders and flowers this month—get ready to duck!
We don’t often have Black-chins at our feeders. But one evening, I was able to snap a photo of the other 3 species all sharing the same feeder. I was able to take “portraits” of a male from each species. (Below, the left photo is a Broad-tail; center, Calliope; right, Rufous. Click on any photo for a larger view.) Calliopes make me laugh—their gorget feathers make them always look as if they’re leaning into a headwind.
Not only was it unusual to see all 3 species at once, but all of them actually feeding calmly without chasing others away was truly a sight to behold. (Broad-tail, left; Rufous, center; Calliope, right) I call the photo below “the peaceable kingdom.”
In our area, hummingbirds are migratory, heading to Mexico or Central America for the winter. In fact, Rufous Hummingbirds that breed in coastal Alaska fly ~2,700 miles from their wintering grounds to their breeding areas—in effect, traveling 49,000,000 body lengths twice a year. The record for the longest documented hummingbird migration route goes to a female Rufous Hummingbird banded in Jan., 2010 in Tallahassee, FL and recaptured in June, 2010 in Chenega Bay, AK—roughly 3,530 miles away (and her route not doubt was not a straight line). Makes me tired just to think about it…
These fascinating creatures have spawned a number of “old wives tales” (a phrase I rather dislike, being a bit of an old wife myself) ranging from the harmless (e.g., hummingbirds will starve if I don’t keep my feeders full) to the totally bizarre (e.g., hummingbirds migrate on the backs of Canada Geese). This Web page examines 12 common myths about hummingbirds—and helps to dispel these common misconceptions about these amazing little jewels.