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Fascinating Hummingbirds

Catherine's writing reflects her life-long love of nature and gardening. She advocates for sustainability and respect for all living things.

If a hummingbird suddenly buzzes into your space, consider it a good omen.

Fascination and Folklore

The one bird that holds the greatest fascination among backyard birdwatchers is the hummingbird. From the order Apodiformes, which means "unfooted birds," hummingbirds fall into the family Trochilidae. There are fifteen species in the U.S. and about 350 known within the Western Hemisphere where they are only found. The majority live within the equatorial belt.

Going back to early civilizations, they were held in high regard among many different indigenous people, and there are many myths about them as divine messengers.

In Native American folklore, the hummingbird was said to bring light and was thought to take messages to Mother Earth for the shamans. The Hopi and Zuni tribes thought of it as the bringer of rain and decorated water vessels with its image.

The Taino people of Hispaniola saw them as symbols of peace, protection, and rebirth.

The Mayans believed that the Great God made the hummingbird from the leftover feathers of all other birds and that the first wedding on earth was between two hummingbirds, the sun and moon in disguise.

The national bird of Jamaica is a scissor-tailed variety referred to as the doctor hummingbird. It is thought to be the most spectacular of all.

Among the Aztecs, the belief was held that fierce warriors would morph into hummingbirds after death then fly to join Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. His name means "blue hummingbird."

The positive associations with this charming bird and its symbolism for luck, joy, and healing can be attributed to its beauty, energy, and agility. If a hummingbird suddenly buzzes into your space, consider it a good omen.

Allen's Hummingbird

Allen's Hummingbird

Common Hummingbirds of Southern California

  • Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) has a green back and rusty flanks.
  • Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) is gray, white, and green. Females have black or dark green heads. The males have a ruby head and gorget.
  • Costa's Hummingbird (Calypte costae) has a green back w/ grey flanks. Females have black chins and heads. The male has an amethyst head and throat.
  • Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) has a green and rusty-red body; hence, the name rufous which means red. The male has a brilliant copper-orange throat.

In our garden, we commonly see Anna's Hummingbird with a grayish-white body and iridescent green accents. The male has an iridescent ruby face and throat. He is unmistakable when spotted at feeders.

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The Rufous Hummingbird, a shorter, more aggressive species with a rusty brown head and coppery-orange throat is a frequent visitor, often perched in the nearby tree to chase off those that wish to share the feeder.

Allen's hummingbird with his green back offers the most entertainment with his acrobatics. It is really something to witness his courtship flight: a high dive into a repetitive pendulum swing. The song sounds like the twang of a Jew's harp.

The black-chinned Costa's hummingbird, the smallest and rarest of our visitors, comes more frequently once winter has passed now that favorite desert plants are part of our urban xeriscape gardens. The male Costa has a stunning purple throat and chest which radiates like an amethyst when the light is just right. Jewels of the garden, indeed!

Characteristics of Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds fall into the bird category of gnatcatchers. In addition to insects and spiders, their natural diet is made up of sap, pollen, and nectar. They benefit us in the garden by helping with pollination and pest control.

Hummingbirds have bills that are long, curved, and tapered at the tip. This makes it easy for them to get nectar and pollen from tubular flowers and sap from holes made by other sapsuckers. They are primarily attracted to red but not limited to it. Hummers choose red flowers because bees are busy pollinating the yellow and orange blooms. The lack of bees means a sweeter, better quality nectar.

The hummingbird has a very fast metabolism and ideally needs to feed every 10 minutes It consumes about 2/3 of its body weight every day.

Hummingbirds can fly at 40 mph and can dive-bomb in attack mode at a speed of 60 mph. Its wings beat about 50 times per second as it hovers upright at flowers and feeders. Unlike other birds that get power from the downstroke by bending their wings at both the shoulder and the "elbow," hummers beat from the shoulders only and achieve greater maneuverability. It is capable of flying in all directions, including upside down.

Hummingbirds will stop and perch on branches of trees and shrubs, fences, and utility lines where they often let out a high-pitched squeaky chirp.

The Unique Hummingbird Tongue

The hummingbird tongue can lick at the rate of up to 20 times per second. When extended, it is equivalent in length to its beak. It is split in two and edged in fleshy fringed extensions called lamellae. It had always been thought that a hummingbird sucks nectar through capillary action as if drawing through a straw, but the mechanism it is far more complex.

When a hummingbird feeds, it extends its long transparent tongue which separates and the fringed lamellae extend outward. As the bird pulls its tongue in, the tips come together and the lamellae roll inward. This action traps the nectar within it.

Scientific studies published in the PNAS journal from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show, "The tongue does not passively draw floral nectar up into the grooves via capillarity when its tips contact the liquid; rather, it is dynamically trapping nectar within the lamellae while the tips leave the fluid. Our work with dead specimens demonstrates that neither the unfurling nor the furling of the lamellae requires any muscular work; the process of nectar trapping results purely from the structural configuration of the tongue tips. We are unaware of any other biological mechanism for fluid trapping that is similarly dynamic, yet requires no energy expenditure to drive the opening and closing of the fluid trap."

Feeding Hummingbirds

Hummers, like most birds, like to observe their surroundings before feeding. For safety and attraction when hanging a feeder, consider nearby shelter and dappled light. Too much window reflection can cause birds to fly into the glass and hurt themselves. Excess sunlight will overheat the nectar and promote spoilage.

A hummingbird can live for up to 8 years and will remember the location of food sources for most of its life. This is a good thing for enthusiasts with backyard feeders! We all enjoy watching these delightful birds from our windows as they loudly buzz down to drink the nectar.

My favorite feeder is the Perky-Pet. It has a built-in ant moat and is easy to dismantle and clean regularly. This is so important for the welfare of these tiny, energetic birds. The moldy soot that quickly grows on sugary feeder ports can be toxic to them.

Bees can sometimes become a problem at feeders in late summer. To prevent this annoyance which interferes with feeding, consider these tips:

  • Install bee guards can put over feeder ports to keep them out. These can be purchased online or in the feeder section of a home and garden center.
  • Keep feeders clean and free of leaks or broken parts.
  • Keep a water dish with small stones for bees to easily access for water.
  • Grow a pollination bed with bee's favorite flowers.

If these steps don't work, it may be necessary to relocate or temporarily remove the feeder.

Red nectar is commonly sold at garden centers, but the artificial coloring is not necessary nor is it good for them. Nectar can be readily made at home using a simple recipe of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. I remember the 4:1 ratio by saying "hummingbirds are fun for one to watch."

Nesting and Raising Young

Breeding season is December to May, although some can mate as late as July. The males put on quite a courtship show with acrobatic flying and can get quite territorial. Once the mating is complete, the female has no further interest in her suitor and puts all her efforts into nest building.

Hummingbird nests are soft and carefully constructed works of art. Females look for a small branch or twig in a leafy area on which to build her nest. It will have a 1 1/2 " cavity and is constructed of lichen, moss, and feathers which are held together with spider webs. The female will make over 150 trips in just one day to collect building material. The nest will be downy and featherlight, ready to hold two jelly-bean sized eggs laid on separate days. The mother will then sit on them to keep her clutch warm until ready to hatch. The incubation period is 2-3 weeks. A female will have two or three broods per year.

In just over two weeks, the chicks will be nearly covered in iridescent feathers and will start to warm up their wings in preparation for flight. The mother at this point will begin to feed them less as a nudge to get her chicks out of the nest to fend for themselves. When the fledglings begin to fly, the mother will encourage them to fly higher and further away by offering bits of food from her mouth.

Hummingbird nest—a downy little cup with its clutch of two jelly bean sized eggs.

Hummingbird nest—a downy little cup with its clutch of two jelly bean sized eggs.

Seasonal Migration

In winter we often wonder why our feeders are abandoned.

Even though Anna's hummingbirds stay put, all other North American varieties will migrate to Mexico and Central America, including the Ruby-Throated hummingbird that populates the Eastern United States. Migration can start in mid-late summer after breeding. With the males arriving first, hummers return as early as February though most arrive a little later in spring to familiar nesting sites.

Feeding is high before migration as birds will gain 25% - 40% of body weight before setting off for warmer environs. This explains to need to constantly refill feeders in summer.

It is quite arduous for these tiny birds to travel long distances. Metabolism is high with heart rate nearly 1,300 times per minute and wing speed up to 80 times per second.

Travel is usually solitary. Hummingbirds recall familiar routes much the way they remember feeder locations, and stay close to water and tree canopies.

The Rufous hummingbird is capable of travelling 4,000 miles as he migrates from breeding sites in Alaska and Canada to Mexico and back, with paths along the Pacific coast and the Rocky Mountains.

A hummingbird feeding frenzy on the patio at dusk.

A hummingbird feeding frenzy on the patio at dusk.

Creating a Natural Habitat

Hummingbirds are likeliest to frequent those gardens which most resemble wild habitats. In Southern California, hummingbirds like to nest in native plants like Ceanothus, Manzanita, and Elderberry, but will also choose most shrubs, woody vines, and small trees.

They should not exclusively live off the sugar nectar from feeders, and it is important that they get protein from insects. Pollen from plants is believed to be an immunity booster.

The following is a partial list of favorite food sources for this Western region that add carefree beauty to the garden. For other areas, check with the Audubon Society or your local native plant nursery.

When possible, make your backyard a welcoming place by choosing a selection of native plants. You will admire the adaptability of these plants and the rich diversity of life they attract. You'll also want to grab a camera or your favorite sketchbook when those lovely and energetic hummingbirds buzz by for a visit!

California Plants for Hummingbirds

Botanical NameCommon NameBotanical NameCommon Name




California columbine



Calliandra californica


Cirsium occidentale

red thistle

Distictus buccinatoria

red trumpet vine



Galvezia speciosa "boca rosa"

Channel Island snapdragon



Lobelia cardinale

cardinal flower



Mimulus cardinalis


Salvia greggii

autumn sage

Salvia elegans

pineapple sage

Salvia apiana

white sage

Salvia clevelandii

Cleveland sage

Salvia leucantha

Mexican sage


California fuchsia

Resources hummingbird tongue

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is the feathered area that sometimes stands proud called the "chin"?

Answer: The bright feathered area on a male hummingbird's neck is called the gorget. Some female Anna's hummingbirds have a small one. Males are the showier and more colorful of the two sexes.

Question: How long does it take the hummingbird to learn to fly from the time it starts standing on its nest and flapping its wings?

Answer: A baby hummingbird will usually have its feathers by 2 weeks but isn't really ready to depart the nest for 3 weeks until it can strongly fly.

Question: How can you tell if a hummingbird is a male or female?

Answer: Male hummingbirds are more brightly colored. The pictures in my article are males.

© 2011 Catherine Tally


Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 16, 2014:

Good morning, Dave. I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub and the images. One of the great joys of travel is experiencing the diversity of our natural world. It is a concern to me that bird/insect host plants/trees are being replaced by non-native species which have become more readily available around the globe. Thank you for stopping by and leaving the thoughtful comments. :)

Dave from Lancashire north west England on January 16, 2014:

Beautifully written, informative article, enhanced by great images. It is one of my sad regrets that humming birds do not occur here in the UK. Thanks to you I have been blessed with their company for a while.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on February 24, 2013:

Hi Express10,

Hummingbirds are such a treat to have in our garden! The Anna's hummingbird that visits us is one of the longer-lived No. American varieties. I think most other hummers average 3-5 years if they learn survival skills when young. - Amazing!, considering their metabolic rate.

Thank you! It's a pleasure to see your thoughtful comments on 2 of my hubs today.

My best,


H C Palting from East Coast on February 23, 2013:

Hummingbirds are fascinating and beautiful creatures. I didn't know they could live up to 8 years. Thanks for sharing this information and the beautiful pictures.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on June 25, 2012:

Hi Mr. Happy. I'm so glad that you enjoyed learning about hummingbirds. There are many varieties all over the world. Try a feeder in your yard and be patient. They should eventually show up just like they have at your friend's cottage. Thanks for dropping by and commenting! :)

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on June 24, 2012:

Your hummingbird feeder looks like one a good friend of mine has at his cottage, here in Northern Ontario. The birds which come to it are for sure some specie of hummingbirds because they have the same helicopter flying patterns and make that loud buzzing sound when they fly, like giant insects. I have yet to catch one in a photo. For some reason I kept thinking that huminbirds only live in hot climates ...

Very intersting piece of writing. I appreciate You sharing all this information. Thank You for putting this hub together.

All the best! on June 26, 2011:

Wow! Those are hungry squirrels. I'd suggest putting a pile of fruit&nut bird food out in a small pile nearby, so they fill up and leave your feeder alone. Good luck!

Cat on a soapbox :>)

Barbara on June 25, 2011:

Hi everyone,

I live in southeastern Massachusetts. This year I put out my hummingbird feeder and two pesky squirrels jump on it and tip it and lick up the nectar. I tried switching to a feeder with high plastic flowers (the other plastic flowers lay flat against the bottom piece). They ate through the feeder in less than a week and all the nectar has leaked out which they were hungryly licking it off the deck. I can't believe they are doing this. My feeder gets empty in one day. I guess I won't be able to feed the hummingbirds anymore as they very seldom get to eatanyway. What a bummer. I just love to watch them too!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 27, 2011:

Miss Lil' Atlanta, I am really glad that you enjoyed my hub. Hummers are truly remarkable in both beauty and habit- no wonder so many people love them! I hope you can attract more to your area. Thank you for your nice comments :>)

Miss Lil' Atlanta from Atlanta, GA on April 26, 2011:

Hummingbirds really are some of the most interesting animals. I've always been fascinated by them. Where I live there really aren't many hummingbirds, but I've had the pleasure of seeing about 3 or 4 of them in my life time.

Really great hub again, cat on a soapbox. I'm so going to start following your hubs. :)

logic,commonsense on March 28, 2011:

I get one to stop by every once in awhile, but they never seem to stick around, even with some of their favorite plants around the house.

Kathi Mirto from Fennville on March 18, 2011:

We have the Ruby Throated hummer here in Michigan. He goes after my Hosta blooms the most. Fun, fun, fun to watch!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 17, 2011:

Wow, thanks! I just love these beautiful winged gems so

much- they inspire me to write about them. I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub!

epigramman on March 17, 2011:

....well this is perhaps the most definitive hub on hummingbirds - and it's by far the most beautiful!!!!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 14, 2011:

Crystolite: I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub. Thanks for reading.

Dirt Farmer: Isn't it great that hummers remember the location of food sources year after year? You should always have these energetic friends buzzing about your yard especially if you add more native host plants.

Jill Spencer from United States on March 14, 2011:

My family gets excited when we spot a hummingbird in the yard, too. Thanks in particular for the list. We're only growing three on it and will have to add more!

Emma from Houston TX on March 11, 2011:

Nice poem with colorful pics of the birds.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 10, 2011:

Thanks, Genna. I always value your comments. I've never known a squirrel to pester a hummingbird feeder since they have no use for the nectar. Ants can be a problem; however, there are products like the Ant Guard, which acts like a moat which ants avoid crossing to get to the sugar. I hope you do get a feeder so you can enjoy watching these winged jewels!

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on March 10, 2011:

How beautiful they are; I have been thinking about purchasing a feeder, but am not sure of how safe it would be given the squirrels (the neighborhood bullies) we have in abundance in the spring and summer months. These guys eat just about anything. Wonderful hub!

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