Speaking of Nature: The hummingbird is inquisitive, bold and content

  • A male Allen’s hummingbird sitting in a shady spot displays his glowing orange throat feathers. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • The same male, seen in direct light as he feeds, appears to have a black throat from this particular angle. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Sunday, September 03, 2017

When the early colonists sent reports of hummingbirds back to Europe they were initially not believed.  Birds that behaved like bees were simply thought to be tall tales that were being told as jokes, but eventually the fact of their existence was acknowledged; the New World was indeed a wondrous place.  The real wonder, however, was the amazing diversity of the hummingbird family.



The entire eastern half of the United States sports only a single species of hummingbird – the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).  At 3.75 inches in length it is a “standard” sized hummingbird.  Being so small and agile allows this bird to be virtually fearless in the presence of humans, which only adds to their charms.  They will approach to very close distances, hover and examine a person with obvious curiosity, delighting the person being observed all the while.



As soon as the explorers pushed their way to the western half of the US the miracle of hummingbirds was increased with an explosion of species.  Eleven additional species can be found in the western states, with the greatest concentration being found in Arizona.  Sometimes diversity is the product of specialization and habitat division and in the case of hummingbirds this means that the western states support a patchwork of overlapping ranges of different species.



My recent trip to Los Angeles allowed me to get out and see some of the magnificent examples of western hummingbirds, but it also introduced some confusion into the equation because the process of speciation can produce changes that are quite subtle.  Take the Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin).  



The hummingbird model (if you want to think of it this way) starts with a bird covered in iridescent green feathers on the head, back, wings and tail, white feathers on the breast and abdomen, and a patch of iridescent feathers on the throat.  In the case of the ruby-throated hummingbird these throat feathers are a stunning shade of red that glow with an inner light in the proper angle.  Seen from the “wrong” angle, however, the throat feathers appear black.



Most hummingbirds conform to this basic model, with only the size, shape and color of the throat patch (called a gorget).  The Allen’s hummingbird shows some delightful variation.  The white breast feathers are replaced with a sumptuous cinnamon color that even begins to bleed into the green feathers on the bird’s back.  Also, the gorget is orange, rather than ruby red, and the feathers wrap further around the side of the bird’s neck.



I should definitely mention the fact that I am fixating on the appearance of male hummingbirds.  Adult females are generally less colorful than the males and in most species the gorget is reduced, or missing altogether.  This can cause great confusion when comparing species and the Allen’s hummingbird is a perfect example of this for there is another closely related species, the rufous hummingbird (S. rufus) that is devilishly similar to the Allen’s.



In some cases, the rufous hummingbird’s green feathers have been entirely replaced with those gorgeous cinnamon feathers everywhere but wings.  But, as always, there are certain males, called “green-flecked” males, that have a few vestigial green feathers scattered across their backs.  I have to imagine that these birds are the products of the gradual geographic isolation of two different populations.



The range of the Allen’s hummingbird could easily be plotted on a map of the US if you simply grabbed a colored pencil and ran it up the coastline of California; an extremely narrow, but very long geographical area.  The range of the rufous hummingbird is triangular in shape and runs from the southern borders of Oregon and Idaho and quickly tapers until you reach the extreme southern border of Alaska.



The two species are so closely related that the females and juveniles are virtually indistinguishable from one another.  In the breeding season, the two species are found in different ranges, but during migration it is only the males that look different, but sometimes not enough to make things easy.  I finally decided that I was looking at Allen’s hummingbirds because I thought it was too early for rufous hummingbirds to be migrating so far south into California.



The hummingbirds that I encountered were everything one hopes for.  They were inquisitive, bold, and content to go about their business with people (most namely me) nearby.  What made the experience truly wonderful was the fact that I had a new lens on my camera, but that is a story I will save for next week.  For now I’ll just leave you to contemplate the wondrous little jewels that hummingbirds are.



Bill Danielson has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, and the Massachusetts State Parks.  He has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 19 years and he also teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.