Hummingbirds are easily the most fascinating of all birds, entertaining everyone with their high-speed aerial acrobatics, diminutive size and brilliant colors. You won’t find this amazing bird in Africa, Europe or Australia, either; the 320 or so species of hummingbirds are found only in the Western Hemisphere.
Hummers, who get their name from the high-pitched hum of 90 wing beats per second, are unique in many ways. They are the smallest of the world’s birds, have long, thin bills and iridescent colors and fly like no other. Hummingbirds move their wings in a figure eight pattern, giving them the unique ability to fly backward, sideways and vertically, as well as forward, hover and even fly upside down. Their heart rate can reach 1,200 beats per minute, and they can zip through the skies at 60 miles per hour.
Winter skiers won’t find hummers here, but summer residents and tourists can enjoy three species in Summit County’s late summer: the broad-tailed, Rufous and Calliope.
The broad-tailed is Summit County’s only nesting hummingbird, comfortable in the High Country of Colorado and nine other western states. In Colorado, broad-tailed hummingbirds arrive when glacier lilies bloom in the spring and return to their central Mexico wintering grounds as fall approaches. As is the case with all hummingbirds, males disdain family ties, mating with as many females as possible and letting the single-parenting ladies build the nests, incubate the eggs and feed and raise the young. Male hummers are playboys of the bird world.
They may be irresponsible, but the males are strikingly handsome, with long tails, emerald green crowns, back and white collars and ruby-red throats and face gorgets. Also, a uniquely notched primary wing tip provides a distinctive ringing sound when a male zips nearby.
Significantly smaller than broad-tailed hummingbirds, Rufous hummers belie their penny weight with an aggressive chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. The brightly copper-colored males are playground bullies, hogging flowers and feeders, and fan their tails as they fearlessly buzz away intruders. Sharing is not their nature. Rufous hummingbirds are tough in other ways, too. This is a bird that flies from central west Mexico to the Pacific Northwest, western Canada and Alaska to breed and holds the hummingbird migration record with a recorded 2,800-mile trip. Males are the color of polished copper with a gorget that, depending upon reflected light, can be green, red or gold. In Summit County, Rufous hummingbirds show up in July, hang around to rest and fuel up for the long trip south and disappear as fall arrives.
We are particularly fortunate to have this summer visitor, since the Calliope is the smallest bird found north of Mexico. The Calliope nests in western mountains from Utah to British Columbia and, like the Rufous hummingbird, is a Summit County migrant passing through from July to fall on its way back to Mexico. However, you will see far fewer Calliope hummingbirds than Rufous, making each sighting special. This is a quiet and shy bird, named for the Greek muse of epic poetry, not the big, noisy music machine, and is easily driven away from your feeder by our other two hummers. The female can be differentiated from other hummingbirds by a tail shorter than her wings, which can be seen when perched. The male is unmistakable, with a stunningly streaked magenta and white gorget.
You can attract and enjoy all three of these beautiful birds by hanging hummingbird feeders in your yard or, if you live in a condo, on your deck. Inexpensive feeders are available at many local stores, and you can make your own artificial nectar by boiling four cups of water with one cup of sugar. Clean and refill your feeders once a week, and don’t add food coloring. To minimize conflict and give the little Calliopes a chance, put up several feeders in different locations. With bullying Rufous around, you’ve got to level the playing field!