Calliope Hummingbird

On the wild side—July, 2013

by Tina Mitchell

Someone has to be the smallest.  Among birds that breed in North America, that honor goes to the Calliope Hummingbird.  CAHU(Note that “calliope” is pronounced “kuh LYE uh pee” as in the musical steam-whistle organ heard at circuses and merry-go-rounds.)  Measuring a mere 3” long and weighing about 0.1 oz., the Calliope is –believe it or not—quite noticeably smaller than the other hummingbirds in our area.  Its short wings barely extend beyond the tip of its tiny tail.  An adult male has a greenish back and distinctive strips of magenta feathers streaking across both sides of his white throat.  In fact, those streaks of feathers nearly always make him look as if he were facing into a headwind, no matter what the wind is doing.  Less flashy, but just as diminutive, the female and immatures show golden green above and a warm buffy wash across the breast and flanks.  Sometimes, a female displays a few small magenta spots of her gorget (throat), but it is mostly white.  Because their wings are shorter than the species of hummingbirds that breed in our area (Broad-tailed and Black-chinned), their wingbeats are higher pitched, sounding rather like bumblebees.  In comparison, the male Broad-tailed’s wings send off a cricket-like trill that is nearly unmistakable.  Black-chinneds sound to me like the lumbering June bugs that used to hurl themselves against the screens when I was a kid in the Midwest.

Calliopes breed in the northwest U.S and western Canada.  As with other hummingbird species, the males play no role in raising the young.  So they are free to start their southward “fall” migration in late June and early July.  That’s when they begin to appear in our area—the males, several weeks before the females and juveniles. The Calliope Hummingbird holds a second notable honor—the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world.  Records tell us that some Calliopes travel more than 5,000 miles annually on their round-trip migration path to central Mexico.

As is true with other hummingbirds, Calliopes live on floral nectar and small insects such as gnats, flies, and spiders.  Favorite flower species include typical red, tubular flowers as well as wide variety of yellow, white, blue, and purple flowers.  And of course, they eagerly use hummingbird feeders when they pass through central Colorado.  Our feeders have stationary perches on them, which makes the Calliopes even easier to pick out.  These little midgets have to stretch their necks WAAAAYYYY up to reach the feeding port from the perch.

The common name of “hummingbird” refers to the noise from the rapid wingbeats—as fast as 50 beats per second for some species!  The Calliope Hummingbird’s scientific name is Stellula calliope.  “Stellula” means “little star,” referring to the male’s bright plumage and small size.  “Calliope” refers to the Muse of epic poetry.  Defending its territory with a body mass about half that of North America’s smallest songbird, and considering its epic annual migration journey, the Calliope Hummingbird lives up to its “heroic” species name.

You can learn more about these “epic” hummingbirds—and other hummingbirds—here:


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