Interesting Facts About Hummingbirds
The one bird that holds the greatest fascination among backyard birdwatchers is the hummingbird. From the bird family Trochilidae, there are sixteen species in the U.S and about 340 known within the Western Hemisphere where they are only found. The majority live within the equatorial belt.
Going back to early civilizations, the hummingbird was held in high regard. In Native American folklore, the hummer was thought to bring light. In other tribes, it was the bringer of rain. 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 actually means "blue 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.
The Rufous Hummingbird, a shorter, more aggressive species with a rusty brown head and coppery-orange throat is a frequent visitor, but it is the green-backed Allen's hummingbird with its dramatic acrobatics that brings the most entertainment. 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 gnat catchers. 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.
Hummers 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 which is the reason many of us often artificially color the sugar solutions for the bird feeders. Since this isn't necessary, and red dyes could possibly harm the birds, it's best to choose clear solutions. An easy recipe is 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. 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 needs to feed every 10 min. or so. It consumes about 2/3 of its body weight every day. The bird's translucent tongue that can lick at the rate of 13 times per second!
Hummers 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 down stroke 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 . They like to observe the safety of surroundings before feeding, so it's best to consider its preferences when hanging a feeder. Nearby shelter and dappled light are best. Too much window reflection can cause birds to fly into the glass and hurt themselves.
A hummer 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 a must for the good welfare of these tiny, energetic birds. The moldy soot that quickly grows on sugary feeder ports can be toxic to them.
The nest will be made on a small branch or twig in a shrub. The nest has a cavity of 1 1/2" and is held together with spider webs. The nest is lined with soft downy plant material, and will hold one or two jelly-bean sized eggs laid on separate days. Once the eggs are laid, the mother will sit on them to keep them warm until ready to hatch. The incubation period is 2-3 weeks. A female will have 2 or 3 broods per year.
Create a Natural Habitat
Hummingbirds are most likely to frequent those gardens which most resemble wild habitats and offer native plants and flowers for feeding and nesting. Hummers mate and nest during the first 6 months of the year.They should not exclusively live off the sugar nectar we provide. It is important that they get protein from insects and pollen from plants which is thought to be an immunity booster. In Southern California, hummers like to nest in native plants like Ceanothus, Manzanita, and Sambucus.
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. It is important that we sustain our native wildlife by providing the correct host plants. As an example, young hummers feed from the small white bell flowers of manzanita. If it were to become unavailable, our hummingbirds would migrate to Mexico, and we would feel their absence. Make your backyard a welcoming place for our native flora and fauna. You will marvel at the adaptability of your plants and the rich diversity of life they attract. You'll want to grab that camera or your favorite sketchbook when those lovely hummers buzz by for a visit!
Plants That Attract Hummingbirds
- Antirrhinum- snapdragon
- Aquilegia- California Columbine
- Arctostaphylos- Manzanita
- Calliandra californicum- Fairyduster
- Cirsium occidentale- Red Thistle
- Distictis buccinatoria- Red Trumpet vine
- Erysimum- Wallflower
- Galvezia speciosa "boca rosa"- Channel Island Snapdragon
- Lilium- Lily
- Lobelia cardinalis- Cardinal Flower
- Lonicera- Honeysuckle
- Mimulus cardinalis- Monkey Flower
- Salvia greggii- Autumn Sage
- Salvia elegans- Pineapple Sage
- Salvia apiana- White Sage
- Salvia clevlandii- Cleveland Sage
- Salvia leucantha- Mexican Sage
- Zauschneria- California Fuchsia
Questions & Answers
How can you tell if a hummingbird is a male or female?
Male hummingbirds are more brightly colored. The pictures in my article are males.
© 2011 Catherine Tally