High Country Birding: Calliope hummingbird is smallest in North American
August 30, 2014
The largest North American bird, the California condor, isn't found in Colorado, let alone Summit County. We do have bald eagles and golden eagles, but next to a condor, our eagles are pikers. Golden eagles are 2½ feet long, weigh 10 pounds and have a 6½-foot wingspan. Pretty impressive until you consider the California condor, which weighs more than twice as much, is 16 inches longer and whose wingspan, at 109 inches, is 2½ feet broader than the eagle.
At the other end of the spectrum is a diminutive wisp of a bird, only 3 inches in length and weighing no more than a penny, the calliope hummingbird, the smallest bird north of Mexico. In many ways, this bird is more impressive than the condor, and you can find it in Summit County.
A condor outweighs a calliope by a lot, tipping the scales at about 3,700 calliopes. But a calliope can do a lot of things a condor can't, such as hovering and flying backwards, sideways, up, down and even upside down. Calliope hummingbirds also are a lot prettier than a condor, and they'll come to your sugar-water feeder, which, fortunately, condors won't.
Most people think of loud steam-driven organ-like instruments and carousels when they hear the word "calliope," but the tiny hummer was actually named after the Greek muse for epic poetry and eloquence. This choice is better than a big, noisy machine but still far from perfect. "Epic" doesn't fit well with a bird that is picked on relentlessly by other hummingbirds, and "eloquent" is a stretch for a mostly silent creature, but "poetic," at least, is getting close.
Male calliopes are dramatically poetic and unmistakable, with a uniquely striped and stunning magenta gorget. Females and immature birds are harder to identify, but look for noticeably short-tailed, short-billed tiny birds with wings longer than tails. These birds also are at the bottom of the hummingbird pecking order and are regularly driven away from feeders by more aggressive hummers.
The calliope hummingbird is a western mountain breeder, nesting in California north to British Columbia and Alberta and east into Montana, Wyoming and Utah. Wintering in Mexico, the calliope's migration path strays east to Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, and this is one of just three hummers we enjoy in Summit County, and only during its southbound migration in late summer, primarily July and August.
We hang several feeders on our condo's deck in Keystone at 9,300 feet, and during late summer, Rufous and broad-tailed hummingbirds are as thick as bees as they gain weight for their journey on to Mexico. Although broad-tailed hummingbirds hang out in Summit County from spring to fall, nesting in the High Country, Rufous hummingbirds, like calliopes, just stick around long enough to refuel on their long international flight back to Mexico. Calliopes are far fewer in number than the other two, consequently generating much more excitement when they do show up. There is something magical about pennyweight birds so small they have trouble reaching the holes in a hummingbird feeder from the perch.
As summer winds down and thoughts turn to skiing, keep your hummingbird feeders filled and your eyes peeled. With luck, you'll be treated to a poetically colored calliope hummingbird, one of the few things that can rival fall aspen. And be thankful we get North America's smallest bird at our feeders, rather than the largest.
Bob Bowers is a naturalist and freelance writer specializing in nature and travel articles. He writes a monthly birding column for an Arizona newspaper, lives in the mountain foothills near Tucson and spends much of his summer in Keystone. He writes a birding and travel blog, http://www.birdingthebrookeandbeyond.com, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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