Caliope Hummingbirds


calliope-hummingbird_blkforest-co_lah_6692How can a bird be that tiny? And how can anything that tiny have that much stamina?

I’ve been sitting at my dining room table watching the Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds compete for the feeders hanging outside the window when I notice a third species, even smaller than the pugnacious Rufous male hogging the sugar water. It’s our annual visit of the Calliope Hummingbirds! With a length of only 3.25 inches, and a body weighing in at one tenth of an ounce, the Calliope is the smallest bird in the North American bird area.

calliope-hummingbird_blkforest-co_lah_6691That doesn’t seem to give them an inferiority complex, however. Picture this… a tiny speck of a bird weighing about the same as a dime is furiously beating its wings around 70 times per second as it makes its lonely way from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Glacier National Park, Montana… at an altitude of almost 18,000 feet!

Calliope Hummingbirds may be small, but they have incredible stamina. After nesting from the northern Rockies west to the Pacific, they then migrate to south-central Mexico, where they lounge around drinking piña coladas all winter. (Maybe they’re after the hummingbird-sized parasols that come with the drinks.)

calliope-hummingbird_blkforest-co_lah_4922The Calliope Hummingbirds’ northern migration takes place over the coastal ranges. By mid-spring, the males have arrived at their breeding grounds in the mountains. Each male claims a territory, then invites several later-arriving females to join him. The females take on the job of building their cup-shaped nests, which can resemble small pine cones and are often located in conifers. They then lay two eggs, incubate them for a bit over two weeks, and do all the work of raising the young. It seems all the male does is fly around and show off his spectacular streaked throat!

calliope-hummingbird_blkforest-co_lah_4909Then the birds begin the long journey back to Mexico, leaving early enough to take advantage of nectar-filled wildflowers blooming in the mountain meadows, pollinating them in the process. Happily for us, their southbound route follows the Rockies, bringing them right through Colorado Springs between the end of July and mid-August. But you have to pay attention to notice them.

Unlike the Broad-tailed and Rufous males, the Calliope doesn’t make a loud, distinctive trilling whistle with its wings. Instead, they tend to defer to the more aggressive species, waiting until the feeder is temporarily vacant before darting in for a drink. In addition to nectar, they feed on insects and sip sugary sap from holes drilled by sapsuckers.

These tiny hummers are on the Audubon Watch List. Their limited winter range places them at a significant risk from habitat loss or other disturbances. Even so, not much research has been done on this species. You can help by reporting sightings to eBird, and by volunteering with a Breeding Bird survey in your area.

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