Environment Featured Stories

Hummingbirds Feeding our Souls – The Hummingbirds of Eagle County

It flits. It flutters. It fascinates us.

And if one gets very close, it’s as though you’ve somehow been specially chosen to enjoy its dance. Then, in a blink of the eye it’s gone. And you’re left savoring the moment you’ve just experienced; a few seconds that will delight. It’s that extraordinary and, in its own way, feeds your soul. The flight of a hummingbird is mesmerizing.

When they are flying, hummingbirds have a heartbeat of about 1,200 beats per minute and an average wing-beat rate of about 53 per second in normal flight. In fact, their name comes from the hum of their wings, which beat faster than the eye can discern. The smallest of all birds, they weigh only between one and three ounces. They can fly forward, or backward, do somersaults or hover. Their long tongues, which extend far beyond their bills, are uniquely designed to extract nectar from deep within tubular flowers. However, these birds don’t just suck up nectar. Instead, they lick it and then capillary action moves the liquid up two partial tubes on the sides of their tongues and into their throats.

Four species of hummingbirds are found in Eagle County: the broad-tailed, and black-chinned, which also breed here, and the rufous and diminutive calliope, the smallest birds in North America which, you might say, just pass through during their migration – a one-way trip of 2,000 to 3,000 miles!

“The broad-tails arrive in late spring, followed by the black-chinned,” explains Eagle resident and birdwatcher/counter, extraordinaire, Joann Riggle-Potter.

“The rufous show up in July on their way back after migrating up the west coast. “In the spring, Riggle-Potter explains, “the rufous migrate from Mexico, up the coast of California, through Oregon, then Washington – all the way to Alaska to breed. Then they do a circular migration route and get here in July and come down the spine of the Rocky Mountains. The calliopes arrive around July, as well.”

Although, to the average onlooker, hummingbirds look similar, they each have their own characteristics, their own way of “doing things.”

The broad-tailed hummingbird’s sound is a very familiar in these parts: it’s the sound heard of a flying bird zinging by, unseen. This bird has a dark green tail, a long and straight black bill and black legs. This is the bird you see hovering and darting around blossoms and often fighting and chasing each other away from choice patches. Or you might see this little guy extending its bill and long tongue deep into the center of a flower, grabbing a small insect in midair or taking spiders or trapped insects from spider webs.

As feisty as the broad-tail is, he has a phenomenon known as “philopatry-faithfulness” to his home area, which means it nests in the same tree or bush year after year. In fact, this homebody will return to the very same branch and even build a new nest atop the old one.

The black-chinned hummingbird arrives here, in late spring, about the same time as the broad tailed. It spends its winter in western central Mexico and along the gulf coast before heading here, where its preferred habitats include mountain and alpine meadows. This medium-sized hummingbird has metallic green upperparts, gray underparts and a white breast. As well, each black-chinned has a black head with a white spot behind only one eye and an iridescent violet throat.

Interestingly, the black-chinned’s nest can expand as its nestlings grow. The spider and insect silk holding it together stretches and allow the nest to grow along with the growing chicks. What’s more, should the weather turn cold, the bird may ingest three times its body weight of nectar in one day.

The rufous hummingbird is considered to be the feistiest hummingbird in North America. The brilliant orange male and the green-and-orange female are notably pugnacious and relentless attackers at flowers and feeders, even going after other birds twice their weight. These birds feed on nectar from flowers or catch insects midair, eat frequently during the day and become torpid at night to conserve energy. But, because of their small size, they’re extremely vulnerable to insect-eating birds and animals.

To attract a mate, the male rufous will fly high and then dive steeply, making whining and popping sounds at the bottom of the dive, before buzzing back and forth in front of a perched female – or in his case several females who build nests. This bird has an excellent memory for location. So if you’ve moved your birdfeeder – don’t be surprised to see the rufous come back looking for food at the feeder’s previous location.

bird_1The calliope hummingbird, another Eagle County favorite and the smallest breeding bird in North America, as well as the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world, arrives in July, about the same as the rufous. This tiny, yet tough, bird gets its name from the Latin word ‘stellula’, which means “little star,” because of the male’s streaked purple-red gorget (the upper throat or breast), which looks somewhat like a collar, over a white background.

Calliopes not only feed on nectar from flowers, but also drink sap from holes created by sapsuckers or sometimes catch insects on the wing.

During courtship, the male calliope hovers at a wingbeat up to 95 flaps per second (42 percent faster than normal hovering), creating a loud buzzing sound while diving at high speeds, vocalizing at the same time, to attract the female. Research (that was done in a wind tunnel) found that the sound the of feathers as well as the buzzing sound of the bird, each seemed to contain different messages to appeal to the female.

According to the forest service, just by putting their bill deep inside tubular shaped flowers, hummingbirds are key in wildflower pollination in the continental United States. The hummer, of course, is after the nectar. But, as the bird sips away the pollen from inside flower, the pollen gets on the flower. So when bird goes to other flowers, it transfers the pollen: A never-ending cycle.

There’s no doubt that all species of hummingbirds – in their own way – are amazing.

Of course, the best way to watch these birds at work is anywhere you find a flourish of colorful plants. Any flowering plant, with its unique shape and color, will attract a hummingbird. No garden? No problem. A birdfeeder filled with sugar water will lure some hungry souls.

So this summer, once again, get ready for some great entertainment from these special little creatures. Watching their dance just never gets old