Rufous Hummingbird

On the wild side—July, 2012

by Tina Mitchell

Although one of the smaller members of a family of Lilliputians, the Rufous Hummingbird is the feistiest hummingbird in North America.  They are wide-ranging in the west and breed farther north than any other hummingbird—as far north as southeastern Alaska, around a latitude of 61o north.  In strong light, a male Rufous Hummingbird glows like a bright, copper penny, with his cloak of brilliant orange and a flashy iridescent red-orange throat (called a gorget).  Females are less showy, with green backs and some rufous on their sides.  Rufous Hummingbirds don’t breed in Colorado, but they stop by on their migration back to their wintering grounds in extreme southern California and Mexico.  Usually you’ll begin to see them at feeders and flower in early July, vehemently chasing all comers from these food sources.  Even their call sounds pugnacious—a rapid, buzzy “zee-chuppity-chup.”  (Okay—on paper, that doesn’t sound all that menacing.  But in live action, especially if you’re another hummingbird, it packs a bigger punch.)

The scientific name for the Rufous Hummingbird is Selasphorus rufus.  The genus name comes from Greek for “flame bearing:”  selas, light or flame; phorus, bearing. All males of this genus—including our local breeder, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird sporting his rosy gorget—have iridescent gorgets that make them appear to be carrying a flame at their throats.  The common name reflects their overall color (rufus is Latin for various shades of red) and from the buzzing hum of the wings.

Measured in body lengths, Rufous Hummingbirds make the longest migration known in the bird world.  Those that breed in coastal Alaska routinely fly ~2,700 miles from their wintering grounds, primarily in Mexico, to their breeding areas stretching from Oregon, Idaho, and Montana north.  In effect, they travel 49,000,000 body lengths twice a year.  Adult males usually arrive in Colorado a few weeks before the adult females and the current year’s fledglings, since the males have absolutely nothing to do with actually raising the kids.

A hummingbird of any species has many fascinating features.  During flight, its heart can beat 1,200 times per minute—20 times a second!  The oldest recorded Rufous Hummingbird had clocked 8 years and 11 months on its ticker.  Imagine how many times that heart beat!  A hummingbird can fly forward and backwards, straight up and down, and side to side.  It can fly as fast as 30 miles per hour.  It converts nearly 100 percent of the sugars it consumes into energy—one of the highest use-ratios of any food by any animal.  It also has the largest heart and brain, in proportion to its body weight, of any animal on earth.  All of that packed in one tiny, gorgeous, bejeweled body!

If you put out hummingbird feeders, you can make a nectar very easily—no need to buy pre-packaged powders.  All you need is a solution that is 4 parts water and 1 part white table sugar.  (No sugar substitutes, brown or powdered sugars, or honey—just plain old table sugar.)  I usually heat up the water first in the microwave; the sugar dissolves more easily in hot water than in cold.  Let the mixture cool in the refrigerator; in fact, if you make extra, you can keep that in the refrigerator for up to a week.  No need to add artificial color to the mix.  As long as your feeder has some red on it, the hummers will find it.  Even if it doesn’t have red on it, just add a red ribbon or yarn that can blow in the wind.  Voilà—if you hang it out, they will come.  And don’t worry about leaving your feeders up into the fall.  Feeders out at that time will not keep hummingbirds from migrating.  In fact, a feeder that is available late into the fall migration may really help a late-migrating bird at a time when other sources of nectar are hard to find.  I usually leave mine up at least 2 weeks after I’ve seen the last hummer, just to be safe.

So come July, keep your ears open for that irascible “zee-chuppity-chup” and your eyes peeled for a bright flash of coppery orange zooming by on the way to your feeders or garden.  And stand back—the Rufouses are once again “in the ‘hood!”

You can read more about Rufous Hummingbirds and hear that ferocious “zee-chuppity-chup” here.

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