- 328 species in the New World
- DR personal total: 170 species (52%), 46 photos
combative, and energetic, hummingbirds are among the world's most
popular birds. They are found only in the New World. People across
North America attract them to their homes through hummingbird feeders
and flowering gardens, and can be rewarded with bright migratory
species, such as a male Rufous Hummingbird (left).
Yet the true center of trochilid diversity is in the Neotropics, home
to a dazzling array of species that range from tiny to surprisingly
large, and with an assortment of head plumes, tail streamers, and bill
shapes. Their ability to hover and fly backwards makes them unique.
Further, their interdependence on and co-evolution with flowers provide
a fascinating correlation and field for study. Because the sources of
nectar are constantly changing as flowers bloom and fade, most
hummingbirds live solitary lives, aggressively defending nectar sources
from rivals. Despite the strong pressure to gather nectar rapidly,
studies have shown that 70% of a hummer's time is spent doing little
else than singing, self-preening, and sunbathing (Schuchmann 1999). In
the two shots below, a male White-necked Jacobin sits
near its favored feeder in Trinidad (below left) but immediately reacts
when a White-chested Emerald tries to approach. Such interactions can
lead to dramatic interspecific aerial chases.
|A male Magnificent Hummingbird
sitting in the shade (below left) can look dark and dingy. But when the
hummer sits in the sun, and turns its head (below right), the observer
is suddenly dazzled by a flash of spectacular glittering color. This
species ranges from the southwest United States to Panama, and is a big
hit at feeders from Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, to Savegre, Costa Rica.
color among birds is one of nature's wonders, and hummingbirds display
a full spectrum. For many species, iridescence is limited to a throat
gorget, or a gorget and crown. North American examples include Anna's Hummingbird, the resident species throughout much of California (below, top row left) and Costa's Hummingbird of the southwestern deserts (below, top row right). On others the entire body is jeweled with waves of color, like on Violet Sabrewing (bottom row, below).
Neotropics are inhabited by a host of hummingbirds. Colorful species
buzz about rainforest trees and visit flowers at timberline on Andean
volcanoes. The Caribbean islands have their own fine assortment,
including Purple-throated Carib (right), this one on
Dominica. In my meanderings around the Neotropics, there have been many
wonderful species, such as the Horned Sungem Heliactin cornuta
recently seen in southern Brazil. Three species have particularly
impressed me with their unbelievable beauty, and all have been in the
western Andes of Colombia or northwestern Ecuador. I have photos of
none of these, but nothing can beat a Velvet-purple Coronet Boissonneaua jardini, or a Purple-backed Thornbill Ramphomicron microrhynchum, or a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill Chalcostigma herrani.
Try to see one if you have the chance. The names of hummingbirds alone
set one's head spinning: sunangels, comets, pufflegs, fairies,
starfrontlets, brilliants, mountain-gems, coquettes ....
|Unusual beaks and strange tails are part of the world of tropical hummingbirds. The bill of White-tipped Sicklebill (below left) is adapted best for Heliconia flowers. By far the longest bill, proportionate to size, belongs to the ridiculously unbalanced Sword-billed Hummingbird
(below right) of the high Andes. It is adapted for feeding on
exceptionally long tubular flowers; this photo was taken at about 9000'
in Peru by my friend Bob Tintle while we were birding together. The
yellow on its throat is pollen.
range in size from the smallest birds on earth to several quite large
species in the Andes. Between them, these hummers range in size from 2
to 8.5 inches, and in weight from 1.6 to 19 grams. Among the largest is
Great Sapphirewing (left), shown here from the Peruvian Andes, and nearby lives the largest of them all, Giant Hummingbird Patagona gigas, the size of a swift.
Among the smallest species are the woodstars and the coquettes. The two photos below show two Neotropical coquettes: a female Tufted Coquette (below left), taken in Trinidad, and a male Black-crested Coquette (below right), from Costa Rica.
the many species of hummingbirds, they are divided into just two
subfamilies (Schuchmann 1999). The Trochilinae include all the colorful
species (nearly 300 in all) while the Phaethornithinae is composed of
the six genera and 34 species of hermits. Brown, long-tailed hermits
forage in the understory; some short-tailed species weigh only 1.6 gram
(the same weight as the tiny Bee Hummingbird Mellisuga helenae of Cuba, often termed the "world's smallest bird").
hermits that have been studied display in noisy leks, their clicking
dominating a patch of jungle. Hermits often have a species affinity for
Heliconia plants and it can be rewarding to "stake-out" a patch inside the forest. This Rufous-breasted (or Hairy) Hermit (right) was sitting right next to 'his' Heliconia.
Unlike many other hummingbirds, hermits are generally not territorial
and few species have iridescence. When present, it is limited to the
throat or crown. Nonetheless, it is obvious that hermits are
hummingbirds, and even the most jaded "I can't tell one bird from
another" non-naturalist can identify a hummingbird as such.
course, not all hummingbirds are tropical, or appear to defy the laws
of proportions, nor are all bright and colorful. Females and youngsters
are often plainly-colored, particularly among the migratory species of
North America This cryptic coloring can be important because only
females sit on the nest, and if they were bright then they or the
nestlings might more easily become prey. Hummingbird nests are often
beautifully spun, like those of my local Anna's Hummingbird (above left) or the lichen-covered nest with almost-ready-to-fledge juvenal Costa's Hummingbirds (above right; it actual represents the first documented nesting in Monterey County, California).
(1999) summarizes hummingbird breeding biology this way: "Male
hummingbirds are polygamous, mating with several females during a
reproductive period. In most species studied the male associates with
the female only during a short period to fertilize her eggs. All
remaining reproductive responsibilities like nest building, incubation,
and rearing the young are carried out solely by the female." He goes on
to cite a few reports of males participating in incubation or rearing
the young, particularly in some tropical species, but generally
concludes that there is insufficient evidence to confirm any parental
care by males. What then am I to make of this photo I took in Costa
Rica? It appears to show a male Blue-throated Goldentail
incubating a nest. The hummer is certainly this species and seems to be
in male plumage with a glittering deep-blue throat. This is a lekking
species, so why would a male be incubating? May females occasionally
attain a male-like plumage? There are many mysteries here.
North American hummingbirds are migratory, including Rufous Hummingbird
shown at the top of this family account. Migratory hummers are
susceptible to vagrancy, accounting for the variety of species that
have reached California, including several Violet-crowned Hummingbirds,
one of which is shown at right (in Sonoma County; a first record for
northern California). Surely the most unexpected was Xantus's
Hummingbird Hylocharis xantusii from southern Baja
California; a male visited interior San Diego Co. but a female built a
nest and laid eggs in Ventura Co. (Hainebach 1992). The only
Blue-throated Hummingbird Lampornis clemenciae to reach
California – in Tulare Co. from Dec 1977-May 1978 – not only built a
nest and laid eggs, but fledged three young! These appeared to be
Blue-throated X Anna's hybrids (Baldridge et al. 1983).
field identification of female North American hummingbirds is one of
our most difficult problems. Stiles (1971, 1972), Baltosser (1987),
Jones (1992), Heidcamp (1997), Howell (2002), and Williamson (2002) are
all useful sources.
Many hummingbirds are endemics, limited to single Caribbean islands, or isolated mountain chains, or, in the case of Mangrove Hummingbird (left, in full song and display), the mangrove swamps on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
of these are threatened with extinction: 29 species are listed as
endangered or vulnerable by Birdlife International, including Mangrove
Surely the most sought-after of them
all – rare, endangered, spectacular, and limited to a very small range
in northern Peru – is Marvelous Spatuletail, shown below in a wonderful shot by James Hecht. A separate page focused on this prized species, with more photos, is elsewhere on this web site.
From Green Violetear (left), widespread from Mexico to Bolivia, to Bearded Mountaineer
(right), endemic to the high Andes of central Peru, hummingbirds are
fascinating. I could go on and on about them. They are reason enough
alone to be a birdwatcher.
Elsewhere on this website, check out:
Photos: The male Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufous was in my Pacific Grove front yard in California in March 2006. The White-naped Jacobin Florisuga mellivora was at Asa Wright Nature Reserve on Trinidad in Dec 2006. Both shots of Magnificent Hummingbird Eugenes fulgens were at Savegre, Costa Rica, on 24 Dec 2007. The male Anna's Hummingbird Calypte anna was on her nest at Carmel R. mouth, Monterey Co., Calif., 22 Mar 2007, and the male Costa's Hummingbird Calypte costae was in Anza-Borrego SP, Calif., in April 2006. The Violet Sabrewing Campylopterus hemileucurus was at Mirador Cinchona, Costa Rica, on 19 Dec 2007. The Purple-throated Carib Eulampis jugularis was on Dominica in March 2000. The White-tipped Sicklebill Eutoxeres aquila was roosting over the Rio Pizore, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, on 26 Dec 2007. Bob Tintle photographed the Sword-billed Hummingbird Ensifera ensifera below Abre Malaga, Peru, in June 1987. The female Great Sapphirewing Pterophanes cyanopterus was below Abre Malaga, Dept. Cusco, Peru, on 15 June 1987. The female Tufted Coquette Lophornis ornatus was at Asa Wright Nature Reserve, Trinidad, in Dec 2006. The Black-crested Coquette Lophornis helenae was near Braulio Carrillo NP, Costa Rica, on 18 Dec 2007. The Rufous-breasted Hermit Glaucis hirsuta was at Asa Wright Nature Reserve, Trinidad, in Dec 2006. The female Anna's Hummingbird Calypte anna was on her nest at Soberanes Pt., Monterey Co., Calif., in May 1991. The nest of Costa's Hummingbird Calypte costae was in Bixby Canyon, Monterey Co., on 30 June 1981. The incubating Blue-throated Goldentail Hylocharis eliciae was near the Rio Rincon, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, on 27 Dec 2007. The imm. male Violet-crowned Hummingbird Amazilia violiceps was a vagrant to Kenwood, Sonoma Co., Calif., on 29 Mar 1992. The displaying male Mangrove Hummingbird Amazilia boucardi was at Rio Rincon, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, on 27 Dec 2007. James Hecht photographed the Marvelous Spatuletail Loddigesia mirabilis in the vicinity of Florida, Amazonas, Peru, in August 2000. The Green Violetear Colibri thalassinus was at Savegre, Costa Rica, on 24 Dec 2007. The Bearded Mountaineer Oreonympha nobilis was at Uripichancha, Peru, on 13 June 1987.
photos © Don Roberson except Sword-billed Hummingbird ©
Robert F. Tintle, and Marvelous Spatuletail © James Hecht, used
with permission; all rights reserved.
Although hummingbirds have inspired hundreds of books, there is no
single family book. Such a work would be a difficult undertaking, since
hummingbirds are the second largest family in the New World (after
flycatchers) with over 330 species. Between 1849 and 1861, John Gould
published a five volume Hummingbirds series totaling 418
lithographed plates capturing the beauty and aerial artistry of many
South American hummers (now reprinted as Gould 1990). For many years,
this was the major work on the family until Crawford Greenewalt (1960)
published a spectacular set of color "stop-action" photographs of South
American hummingbirds (Greenewalt's pioneering volume is now rare and
expensive). Numerous other such books followed using strobe-flash
technology to capture hummers in mid-flight, including Scheithauer
(1966) and Dunning (1970) who included incredible Andean species, or
Keppelman (1988) on southeast Arizona. I have found that by far the
most useful for detailed identification purposes for North American
species is Tyrell & Tyrell (1985), not because of the text (which
is very general) but because the excellent photo quality is often
sufficient to determine points like wing formula and remige or rectrix
While not considered a "family book" per se, the Schuchmann (1999)
chapter on the Trochilidae in the Handbook of the Birds of the World
series now serves as the next best thing. At 213 pages, which include a
field guide style painting of every species in the world plus perhaps
the most spectacular set of photos of wild birds ever brought together,
it is a major achievement. The text includes not only a solid
introduction to the natural history of the family but 328 species
accounts featuring 18 authors.
F. A., Kiff, L. F., Baldridge, S. K., and Hansen, R. B. 1983.
Hybridization of a Blue-throated Hummingbird in California. West. Birds
Baltosser, W. H. 1987. Age, species,
and sex determination of four North American hummingbirds. North Am.
Bird Bander 12: 151-166.
Dunning, J. S. 1970. Portraits of Tropical Birds. Livingston Publ., Wynnewood, PA.
Gould, J. 1990. John Gould's Hummingbirds. Wellfleet Press, Secaucus, N.J.
Greenewalt, C. 1960. Hummingbirds. Dover Publ., New York.
Hainebach, K. 1992. First records of Xantus' Hummingbird in California. West. Birds 23: 133-136.
Heidcamp, A. 1997. Selasphorus hummingbirds. Birding 29: 19-29.
Howell, S.N.G. 2002. Hummingbirds of North America: the Photographic Guide. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.
Jones, E. G. 1992. Color variation in maturing male Rufous Hummingbirds. North Amer. Bird Bander 17: 119-120.
Keppelman, T. 1988. Hummingbirds. Little, Brown & Co., New York.
Scheithauer, W. 1966. Hummingbirds. Thomas Y. Crowell, New York.
Schuchmann, K. L. 1999. Family Trochilidae (Hummingbirds) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 5. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Stiles, F. G. 1971. On the field identification of California hummingbirds. Calif. Birds 2: 41-54.
Stiles, F. G. 1972. Age and sex determination in Rufous and Allen Hummingbirds. Condor 74: 24-32.
Tyrell, E. Q., and R. A. Tyrell. 1985. Hummingbirds: Their Life and
Behavior, a Photographic Study of North American Species. Crown Publ.,
Williamson, S. 2002. Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America. Houghton Miflin, Boston.