September Bird of the Month: Hummingbirds
Eres tan valeroso
que el halcón
con su negra emplumadura
no te amedrenta:
como luz en la luz,
aire en el aire.
You are so valiant
that the falcon
with his black plumage
does not frighten you:
like light within light,
air within air.
- Pablo Neruda, "Ode to the Hummingbird"
Allen's Hummingbird at a WBU Window Hummingbird Feeder by Theresa Fisher.
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Tiny but fearless, beautiful but bellicose, hummingbirds are frequent favorites of even the most casual of birdwatchers, captivating both with their pure physical miraculousness and by their bold and inquisitive character. Present only in the Americas (sorry Europe) and year-round in most of California (tough luck East Coast), we are fortunate to have such unique creatures living in such close proximity to our homes. They are also among the easiest birds to attract to your yard for better viewing, happily visiting a variety of feeders with very little upkeep required. For more on attracting hummingbirds, including tips on feeder care, selection, and troubleshooting, see our How to Attract Hummingbirds article.
Hummingbirds in General
- Hummingbirds can fly backwards and sideways, but they can't walk or climb with their tiny feet.
- They have a unique forked tongue which allows them to drink liquids - see this short NY times article.
- One Spanish name for hummingbirds is picaflor (peck-flower); the Portuguese name is beija-flor (kiss-flower)
- While a human breathes around 14–18 times a minute and a starling or pigeon around 30 times a minute, hummers will breath from around 300 times per minute at rest, rising to over 500 times a minute in flight.
- Wings typically beat around 20-80 times per second; watch the slow motion video below to see how those wings are really working. Also notice how hummingbirds' long tongues extend past their already long beaks to enable them to extract nectar from long tubular flowers or feeders.
- Our only year-round hummingbird species, and always the most common. Males are easily recognized by their iridescent red heads; females are gray and green with an iridescent throat patch. (We also see Allen's, Rufous, and occasional other migrants in the summer.)
- Named after Anna Masséna, 19th century Duchess of Rivoli. The Duke was a bird collector.
- Used to breed only from Baja California to the Bay Area, but now the Anna's Hummingbird reaches north into British Columbia and east into Arizona, partially because they are so adept at using non-native plants (including garden ornamentals and others like eucalyptus and citrus trees).
- Anna's consume 1000–2000 flowers worth of nectar per day, the water intake from nectar each day is around 160% of their body mass.
- They will also feed on sap from sapsucker holes and catch insects.
- A few years ago, UC Berkeley researchers cracked the mystery of how Anna's Hummingbirds made a loud chirp during their courtship dives (it's their tail feathers). They also calculated the speed of these dives at 385 "body lengths per second," the fastest such speed relative to body size yet measured, easily beating human jets as well as previously recorded birds such as falcons and swallows.
Anna's Hummingbirds. Local photo by Ari Friedkin. Female on left.
Hummingbirds in Your Yard
- Anna's Hummingbirds are here year-round. In the spring and summer, other migrant species such as Allen's and Rufous Hummingbirds (pictured – note rusty red sides) will also appear.
- All hummingbirds are easily attracted to feeders with a sugar water solution mixed in a 4 to 1 ratio of water to sugar. We recommend using mixes that contain no dye. For more on feeding hummingbirds, see our Attracting Hummingbirds article.
- Nectar left outside will spoil, especially in hot weather. You should clean out your feeder and refill with fresh nectar once a week, or more often in warm weather or if the nectar becomes cloudy or mold-spotted. If your hummingbirds take longer than a week to drink the nectar, you probably don't need to fill your feeder completely.
Want to read more pages like this? Visit our Bird of the Month Archive.