It’s hard to imagine living in a place without hummingbirds, but most people in the world are not likely ever to see one. Better than three percent of the planet’s 10,000 bird species are hummingbirds, but they live only in the west. You won’t find hummingbirds in China, India, Australia, or Europe. Not in the Middle East, and not even in bird-rich Africa. Even Darwin’s laboratory of avian evolution, the Galapagos, is hummer-free. The world’s smallest birds, that we so enjoy and take for granted, are found from Canada through the Caribbean to the tip of South America, but nowhere else. Visitors from other parts of the world must be astonished when they first lay eyes on one.
Truth Stranger than Fiction
Picture Bob Newhart as Columbus describing a hummingbird to the King of Spain. An exceptionally long-billed bird smaller than any other, weighing little more than a penny, and capable of flying 2,800 miles during migration. A bird that can fly backward, as well as forward, that can hover and fly sideways, vertically and even upside down. A bird that can fan its wings 90 beats per second, and whose heart rate soars to 1,200 beats per minute at flight speeds of 60 miles per hour. Talk about leaping buildings in a single bound; this is truly ‘Superbird’.
Some 320 species of hummingbirds are found in the west. Most of these are found south of the Mexican border, with the greatest variety found in Ecuador. From Missouri to Virginia, most of the eastern U.S. knows only the Ruby-throated, but more than 20 species have been documented in the western states. We’re particularly fortunate living in Arizona, where 14 species were recorded on a single day in Miller Canyon, a U.S. record. SaddleBrooke’s hummer number isn’t too shabby, either; we saw six species in our back yard one day last August.
The Hummers of SaddleBrooke
It’s probable that one day we will spot a new hummingbird in SaddleBrooke, but to date the list is six: Costa’s, Anna’s, Black-chinned, Broad-billed, Rufous and Broad-tailed. Our Costa’s, the second smallest bird north of Mexico, is a full-time resident, and within the past year both Anna’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds have been recorded in every month, so they may be moving in permanently, as well. The Black-chinned come north from Mexico in the spring to breed and nest nearby, returning south by the end of September. Rufous Hummingbirds pass through quickly in February, in a hurry to get to their nesting grounds in the Pacific Northwest, but they linger up to six weeks in late summer on their way back to Mexico.
Because we have resident and migratory hummingbirds in SaddleBrooke 12 months of the year, it is important that we keep our sugar water feeders filled whenever we are in town.
August and September Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds are present in SaddleBrooke year-round, but their numbers peak from about mid-August through the end of September. Non-resident Anna’s Hummingbirds return to establish winter breeding territories, joining our resident Costa’s (and possibly resident Anna’s). The Mexican migrants join in, hanging around long enough to build the body weight necessary to get them home. Broad-billed pass through in far fewer numbers, but our most tropical birds, with their red bills and iridescent indigo color are worth waiting for, as are the rare high-elevation Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.
This frenetic period is a delight for hummingbird fanciers, and the perfect time to hang additional feeders, photograph birds and even feed them by hand. As I write this, I’m at 9,350 feet in Colorado, where there are three summer hummers: nesting Broad-tailed and southbound Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds. They are as thick here in mid-July as they are in SaddleBrooke in mid-August, and the numbers this year bode well for what we will see at home next month. Even though our condo is on the third floor, hummingbirds surround our four feeders from dawn to dusk, and as the sun sets they are as thick as bees, stockpiling the sugar needed to get them through the chilly night. During these last few minutes of daylight, aggression abates and the feeders are crowded with birds finally willing to share this last nightcap.
By the time we arrive home in early August, many of these birds will follow, and the Colorado feeding frenzy will be replicated in SaddleBrooke. This will be your best chance of the year to get close to a hummer. Pull up a comfortable chair, brace your arm to keep it from tiring and hold the feeder in your hand. Try not to flinch as long needle-like bills whiz by and these miniature buzz bombs hover in front of your nose. You won’t find this in Africa.
(This article originally appeared in the August, 2012 Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona. Text copyright July 13, 2012, Bob Bowers, Photographs copyright Bob and Prudy Bowers)