Small but fiesty, he swiftly rushes to the scene, wielding an approximately 17.3 mm black sword. He chases a fellow member of his species away from the breakfast table, giving high-pitched chattering and buzzing noises. Once the intruder has fled, he proudly seats himself upon a small twig to watch for other thieves. This little knight has no metal coat; instead, he boasts a handsome one of reddish-orange and green overlapping feathers, shining in the sunshine. Although he carries no shield with his coat of arms, nor does he ride a horse, he is reminiscent of a medieval knight, defending his castle from invasions.
And who is this fascinating tiny creature? Why, the Rufous Hummingbird, fiercest hummer of North America and the ABA’s 2014 Bird of the Year (BOY).
When I first started birding, my mentor would regal me with tales of how a Rufous in Colorado would spend most of his day aggressively chasing away other hummers from the feeders of my mentor’s friend. Six-and-a-half years later, I still have not had the privilege of meeting one, but those stories were the first thing that came to mind when Jennie Duberstein revealed the new BOY and asked if I would write a post to introduce it to readers of The Eyrie.
Like other hummingbirds, the Rufous is tiny, with females weighing about 3.5 grams and males about 3.2. That’s only a little more than a penny! They are approximately 3.75 inches long, with a bill length between 15 and 19 millimeters, and a wing length of about 4.5 inches.
What they lack in size, they make up for in aggressiveness. The first observers of the species noted this, calling it “jealous courage”1 and also saying, “when they are not fighting among themselves they make war upon other birds.”3 Or, in the case of one unfortunate creature, chipmunks:
Another intruder was a chipmunk….he was searching for huckleberries…his occupation brought him almost beneath the hummer’s nest. She darted after him…fill[ing]him with terror. He beat a hasty retreat, squealing lustily as he ran.2
Even during migration, Rufous Hummingbirds display this behavior at stopover sites, chasing everything that might be considered an invader.
Speaking of migration, these guys are champions. A normal trip for some is more than 2,00 miles! Or, in other words, a 3,900-mile journey from Alaska to Mexico is equivalent to 78,470,000 body lengths.4 Putting it in this perspective, makes it seem even more extraordinary. Although most make the long journey to Mexico, members of the species are often found wandering around the East and Gulf Coasts, during the winter, where they adapt fairly well to the colder temperatures. During the rest of the year, they can be found, shifting around like knights between their castles, spending spring in sunny California, summer in the states and provinces between Oregon and Alaska, and fall in the Rocky Mountains.
To carry them on these wanderings, the Rufous Hummingbird has both the fastest heartrate (500 beats per minute at rest, 1260 flying5), and the fastest wingbeats (52–62 wingbeats per second6) of all birds. With all this activity, they have to eat a lot. Imagine having to dine up to eight times an hour7 and drinking four to eight times your body weight8, just to keep yourself going!
What’s on the menu for these speedy guys? Nectar from flowers such as lilies, columnbine, larkspurs, and Indian paintbrush, as well as gnats, flies, and other tiny flying insects. Observers in the early 1900s wrote of the Rufous Hummingbird’s love red flowers, especially columbine, saying that “One…actually crossed a wide meadow of green brakes straight to a single columbine standing most inconspicuously near the woods.”9 Another observer noted that “any spot of red would attract them as it does other hummers, and they investigated it fearlessly even when it adorned the person of a collector.”10
Not only do they show a preference for red flowers, but Rufous Hummingbird males also wear the color. The gorgets (flashy iridescent throats) are a stunning red-orange, or as an observer in the 1920s, described it:
The brilliant scarlet of the rufous hummer’s gorget, which often glows like burnished gold, puts it in the front rank as a gleaming gem, a feathered ball of fire.11
Rufous on their flanks, tails, and heads and white bellies complete this spectacular little bird. The females and juveniles also have rufous flanks and white bellies, but they feature an iridescent green back and head as well. Allen’s Hummingbird, a similarly plumaged close relative, can be distinguished from the Rufous by looking at the tail, but this isn’t always true for young birds, so, when in doubt, noting Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbird is acceptable, even in eBird.
Although males sport the same plumage year-round, they have a special display to impress the ladies. In front of a female, the male will climb to a start point, then dive in a J formation, return to the starting point, and repeat several times. During these dives, they can reach speeds of up to 60 miles an hour.
After mating, females build nests, mostly of spiderwebs, where they lay two eggs. Spider silk is an excellent choice, as it is lightweight and sticky. Another benefit is that it can stretch up to 40% of it’s length without breaking12, perfect for growing hummer chicks.
Rufous Hummingbirds are listed as Least Concern according to the IUCN. With such swift speeds, they aren’t easy to catch, but venomous spiders, wasps, hornets, snakes, and domestic cats are their main predators. Flying into windows also takes its toll, often killing the bird.
Whether you are an old fan of these hummingbirds, or hoping to add it to your life list this year, the Rufous Hummingbird is yet another great Bird of the Year choice. They might not ride horses, wear armor, or carry shields, but they are just as quick to stop invasions as knights of old. Here’s to 2014 and the Rufuous Hummingbird!
1http://www.birdzilla.com/birds/Rufous-Hummingbird/bent_life_history.html (behavior paragraph 1)
2Ibid (behavior paragraph 1 [brackets for clarity])
3Ibid (behavior paragraph 4)
4http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rufous_Hummingbird/lifehistory (Cool Fact #2)
5http://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_hummingbirds.php (Hummer Facts #2)
6http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rufous_Hummingbird/lifehistory (Cool Fact #6)
7http://www.backyardchirper.com/blog/10-fun-facts-about-hummingbirds/ (Fact #9)
8http://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_hummingbirds.php (Hummer Facts #8)
9http://www.birdzilla.com/birds/Rufous-Hummingbird/bent_life_history.html (food paragraph 5)
10http://www.birdzilla.com/birds/Rufous-Hummingbird/bent_life_history.html (food paragraph 4)
11http://www.birdzilla.com/birds/Rufous-Hummingbird/bent_life_history.html (paragraph 1)
12http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Publications/Birdscope/Spring2008/spider_silk.html (paragraph 2)