An incredible machine of an animal. Very territorial, each will guard its food source. They live about 3 to 4 years. They know when to migrate due to changing lengths of daylight. They can fly in any direction, including upside-down. They can flap their wings between 50 and 200 times per second. They feed approximately every 10 minutes, consuming 2/3 their body weight per day.

Hummingbird flight:

Hummingbirds are one of the most amazing birds in this world. They are the only birds that can fly backwards and upside down. During mating season, male hummingbirds fly backwards, then forwards to attract a mate. Hummingbirds can fly horizontally, do barrel rolls, and even hover in mid-air.

Hummingbirds flap their wings over 10 times a second, and their heart beats over 1 000 times a minute. Normally, they have to eat their whole weight in food to maintain enough energy to last. Their wings are very strong, and the wing muscles account for about 25-30 per-cent of their body weight.

To hover, their wings paddle horizontally, making a cycle in both directions, in a figure-eight movement. In doing this, the wings pivot, making the feathers descend, pushing air in either direction. To fly forward, the wings paddle vertically.

Because of their size, hummingbirds have a flight technique more like insects then birds. Their bodies aren’t horizontal, but up-right. This means the wings can’t move up and down, like other birds, but sweep backwards and forwards, pushing air up instead of down. The wings pivot exactly 90 degrees every time they change direction. This allows air to get pushed up no matter what direction the wings move. Hummingbird wings are like the horizontal rotor of a helicopter.

The first time I saw a hummingbird was in Cozumel, Mexico. First of all I thought it was an over-sized insect, rather than a tiny bird. It is amazing how they can just hover there, and take nectar out of flowers. If you haven’t observed a hummingbird, it’s hard to understand.

Within my Garden, rides a Bird

Within my Garden, rides a Bird
Upon a single Wheel --
Whose spokes a dizzy Music make
As 'twere a travelling Mill --
He never stops, but slackens
Above the Ripest Rose --
Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes,
Till every spice is tasted --
And then his Fairy Gig
Reels in remoter atmospheres --
And I rejoin my Dog,
And He and I, perplex us,
If positive, 'twere we --
Or bore the Garden in the Brain
This Curiosity --
But He, the best Logician,
Refers my clumsy eye --
To just vibrating Blossoms!
An Exquisite Reply!

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson, Harry Kemp and D.H. Lawrence all wrote poems about these denizens of the air. The deserts of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, besides being great breeders of bees, have more kinds of hummingbirds than anywhere else in the world. On the Nazca plain in southern Peru, ancient artists carved out an image of a hummingbird so large that it can only be recognized at about 1,000 feet in the air.

On a recent walk I watched a rufous hummingbird, native to the Sonora Desert, as it perched on the upper branches of a creoste bush. Those are the plants that release a pungent and fragrant smell after a desert rain. A slight the breeze swayed the branches as the tiny bird swung back and forth, a beautiful orange-brown color, whose gorget flashed a metallic orange, like polished copper. With whirring wings time vanished before his blue flower while Kiki, my dog, was sneaking up on rabbits.

If you ever get the chance to visit Tucson, make sure to visit the Sonoran Desert Museum and demand to see where they keep these effervescent little jewels in their enormous walk-in aviary. There is almost always a dog fight between two if not three or more marauders going on. The docents are constantly resupplying the feeders and the garden in there is festooned with the favorite flowers of these pugnacious and fearless fliers. Hummingbirds communicate by making visual displays. Males sometimes raise the feathers bordering the gorget and toss their heads from side to side, while uttering shrill sounds. Females and young are more likely to do perched displays in which they spread their tail feathers to show the white tips. Sometimes both males and females do shuttle-flights, rapid back and forth movements in front of another bird. During the shuttle flight, the tail and gorget may be displayed. Dive displays are only done by the males. At key points in the dive, buzzing, whistling, or popping sounds might be made with the wing feathers or the vocal cords. The trajectory of the dive is U-shaped. At the top of the arc, the bird can be quite high in the air

One of the most amazing members of the smallest birds in North America, all of them have long slender bills adapted for reaching deep into tubular flowers where they lap the nectar. Some people may think they suck their food, but their bill is not a tube. Along with the rapid wing beats that produce the humming sound they also can be detected by their rapid, squeaky chipping made in flight. All species feed while hovering and all have the unique ability to fly backward. The throat feathers look black when light does not reflect the brilliant iridescent colors. Young birds resemble the females making some of them difficult to identify. The males have a pendulum courting flight, with distinctive patterns for some species. They migrate by day, flying low and all lay two eggs which are small and white and take 17 days to hatch, more or less, and live an average of five years.

The hummingbird's tiny brain is 4.2% of its body weight, is proportionately the largest in the bird kingdom. Like all other birds their bones are hollow so they don't weigh them down. Many birds' feathers weigh two to three times more than their bones. Most hummers weigh almost as much as a US penny, about 2.5 grams, their wings beat 80 times a second, and their heart beats 1,260 times per minute. I have heard some tall tales about hummers hitching rides on the back of migrating geese, well that's not true either. They migrate just like most other birds.

  • Species of Hummingbirds

    Ruby Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)

      The most common hummingbird living east of the Great Plains with the exception of the Rufous. This is probably the one Emily Dickinson saw when she wrote the poem above. The male is the one with the bright red throat and can be found near tubular flowers in gardens or woods.

    Broad Tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus)

      Common to the Rocky Mountains the male is similar in appearance to the Ruby throated and is distinguished by the shrill metallic wing whistling. No other hummer in the west has its green crown and tail along with a solid red throat. Broad tailed females are nearly impossible to tell apart from the Rufous and Allen's
    Calliope Humminbird (Stellula calliope)
      What a pretty little musical name for the smallest hummer in the United States. They live in the western mountains and the male is the only hummer whose colorful throat feathers form streaks against a white background. The purple feathers can be distended. The female is comparably smaller than the Broad Tailed; slimmer, smaller and has a shorter tail the Rufous and Allen's, with less rufous on its tail and sides.
    Anna's Hummingbird(Calypte anna)
      Resides west of the Sierra Mountains with a red throat and forehead. The female has a green tail that is tipped with a wide white band and her throat will usually have a few red feathers. Females are comparably stouter and larger than the Black chinned; darker and larger on her underside that the Costa's. The male is the only hummer with a real song sung when he is perched.
    Black Chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)
      While throats of other species may look black in poor lighting, this hummer is the only one with a real black throat in North America. The white underbelly with the purple stripe confirms this species when sighted. It has a fly catcher style when hunting insects. The female has no rufous on her sides and tail, indistinguishable from the Costa's but can be separated from the female Anna which is plumper and larger as well as limited to California and southern Arizona.
    Rufous Hummingbird (Selaphorus rufus)
      The Rufous is the only species of hummingbird to nest in Alaska. They migrate 2,000 miles to Mexico each winter, and then back to Alaska in the spring. Their route takes them through the western United States and breeding occurs in the western areas of Washington, Oregon and Canada as well. Along with it's unmistakable solid rufous colored back, the adult male has an unusual aerial display, a rapid dive to within inches of the female while the air moving through his wings produce a loud whine as he suddenly checks his descent. During normal flight the male produces only a subdued humming sound. The female and juveniles look like the Allen hummer and can only be told apart at very close range by its narrow outer tail feather (but watch out for that male swooping by you in his nose dive) The female Rufous are also a bit larger that the Broad Tailed, and smaller than the Calliope. When the wings of the Calliope are folded they extend beyond the tail where the female Rufous's doesn't.
    Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin)
      If your on the coast of California and discover a hummer with a solid rufous tail, a red throat, green cap and back. Then you're watching the male Allen's Hummingbird. The female can be more difficult to identify with the exception of the migrating season when similar species have flown south. Impossible to tell apart from the very closely related Rufous Hummingbird even their calls are the same: a sharp bzee. Once again, watch out for the males and their courtship flights. It's a 25 foot pendulum arc followed by a dive from about 100 feet.
  • Southwest Hummingbirds

    These particular species are found during the summer months along the US-Mexican border. Four of these species have bright red or orange bills with black tips

    Lucifer Hummingbird (Calothorax lucifer)

      Poor little bird probably gets its devilish name from its deeply forked tail. The male had a violet throat and green crown while the female is the only hummer with a buff colored throat and her bill is notably less curved that any other specie. Breeds in the Chisos Mountains in Texas.
    Rivoli's Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens)
      The male is told by its large size in comparison to other hummers, green throated, it has a violet blue crown. The female is told by her large size as well, She has a dark bill and greenish narrow tail. They breed mainly from southeastern Arizona to the Chisis Mountains in Texas.
    Blue Throated Hummingbird (Lampornis clemenciae)
      Large sized and recognizable by the very broad white tip to it's long black tail along with a double white line along it's face. The blue throat of the male is fairly obvious at close range.
    Violet Crowned Hummingbrid (Amazilia verticalis)
      It's the only hummer in North America to have a violet crown and white throat combination. The female and young have lighter and slightly greener crowns. They breed primarily in Guadalupe Canyon in the Chiricahau Mountains of Arizona and have been recorded in the Huachuca Mountains as well.
    Buff Bellied Hummingbirds (Amazila yucatanensis)
      The male and female are alike only their green throat and bright orange bill distinguishes them from other hummers in Texas. Breeds and infrequently winters in the wood margins and thickest in the lower region of the Rio Grande Valley.
    Broad Billed Hummingbird (Cynanthus latirostris)
      Breeds from south central Arizona and south west New Mexico, more rarely in western Texas. The male is identified by its dark body, a long orange bill, and forked tail. The female by comparison has an orange bill as well but a sooty underbelly. Be careful when comparing them with the paler breasted White Eared hummer.
    White Eared Hummingbird (Hylocharis leucotis)
      While the male may appear to be all dark and similar to the Broad billed, it's tail, however is squared tipped and is the only hummer with a long ear stripe. The female is notable for her spotted throat and green flanks. A casual visitor to the mountains of southeastern Arizona.
    Well congratulations if you've read this far! It takes practice, a quick eye and trained ears along with a powerful set of binoculars to spot these little fellas. With practice most people can pick up the knack of birding and telling species apart. I've been a birding hobbyist for many years and lucky enough to live along the Hummingbird Highway that runs from southern Mexico to southern Arizona. While it's really not paved and there are no road signs it's a corridor of plants that hummers, bees, moths, butterflies and bats pollinate as they migrate. At this time unfortunately it's shrinking due to the land being used for ranching, farming, and cities.

    Some parts have been sprayed with pesticides which in turn also kill the pollinators. As the pollinators disappear so do the plants that depend on them. As a result many people are being encouraged to plant more native plants such as yuccas and desert honeysuckles here in the desert. While bees like pink, yellow and purple flowers with landing pads along with butterflies and bats who prefer sweet scents, hummers like red, yellow, orange and purple tube shapes with no scent at all.

    Hummers eat a tremendous amount of food, two to three times their little body weight a day. A child weighing fifty pounds would have to consume 100 to 150 pounds of nectar and insects a day to keep up with a hummingbird. If you would like to try your hand at attracting hummers to you yard there are a couple of ways to do that. One is by planting flowers that naturally attract them and the other is by offering a syrup concoction:

    Hummingbird Nectar

      1 Cup Sugar
      4 Cups Water

      Bring the water to boil for two to three minutes, add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Never use honey or artificial sweeteners. Honey ferments easily and can lead to botulism. Keep the feeder clean to ensure against mold. Avoid adding red food coloring, buy a feeder that's already colored red.

    If you enjoy gardening some favorites that are easily grown throughout most of North America for hummers are: Sages and Salvia, Lantana, Columbine,Fuchsias Impatiens,Coral-Bells, Hollyhocks, Penstemen, Petunia,Geranium and Begonia.


    The Hummingbird Web Site :

    Robbins, Bruun, Zim, Singer, "Hummingbirds," A Guide to Field Identification Birds of North America, 1966.

  • A hummingbird got lost in the shop today. "The shop" happens to be ten thousand square feet mostly of ionizers in wooden crates.

    It flew in long curves over the grid of conduit and fire sprinkler line; a couple times, it shot towards the open rolling doors leading to the rear parking lot, lost its nerve, bounced back. From twenty feet below I saw its button eyes and its red chest reflecting fluorescent light. 

    We didn't have anything long enough to herd it with, which was probably for the best. We whistled at it, waved our hands at it, told it which way the door was. There's no suspended pipe in our shop smaller than three-quarter inch. After a few minutes we went back to work away from the bird and the rolling doors; the bird flew.

    Everybody knows at least one random thing about hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are full of facts, like, eighty (80) wing-beats per second on average, and five to ten (5-10) meals per hour in captivity.

    Something bigger showed as the hummingbird, obviously frantic, shoved its bill into the tiny lavender and rosemary flowers in the garden an hour and a half later, after making a desperate sine wave over the rows of boxes and breaching the rolling doors. This afternoon in the surreal heat and rosemary smell it was more conscious than most things grasping an iPod. It checked every flower twice, the dead ones too, and darted away over the sea of concrete.

    It's night when I leave the shop now. Even with the heat, the plants know it's autumn; unused chlorophyll becomes leaf-litter, the internal latticework so much down-cycling carbon and phosphorous and nitrogen and potassium. Everything dead turns brown, flowers too. I'm not sure how long hummingbirds live.

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