Smallest North American Bird, the Calliope Hummingbird

North America's smallest bird, the Calliope Hummingbird (photo Bob Bowers)

North America’s smallest bird, the Calliope Hummingbird (photo Bob Bowers)

Many of us might guess (correctly) that the California Condor is North America’s largest wild bird, but few of us know that our smallest bird is the Calliope Hummingbird. California Condors are pretty hard to ignore.  Once nearly extinct, and still struggling, condors get a lot of publicity.  And they’re big.  Compared with Golden Eagles, they weigh twice as much and have an extra two and a half feet of wingspan.  At the other end of the spectrum is a mere wisp, a bird barely three inches in length and weighing little more than a penny, the Calliope Hummingbird.  Most people think of loud steam-driven organ-like instruments and carousels when they hear ‘calliope’, but the diminutive 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’ is getting close.

Female Calliope Hummingbird, Keystone, Colorado (Photo Bob Bowers)

Female Calliope Hummingbird, Keystone, Colorado (Photo Bob Bowers)

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 three hummers we enjoy in the high country of Colorado during its southbound migration in 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.  Calliopes are far fewer in number, but generate much more excitement when they do show up.  There is something magical about penny-weight birds that have trouble reaching the holes in a hummingbird feeder from the perch.

Rare Immature Male Calliope, Pinal County Arizona, November, 2013 (Photo Bob Bowers)

Rare Immature Male Calliope, Pinal County Arizona, November, 2013 (Photo Bob Bowers)

Calliopes can also be found during migration in the mountains of Arizona, with less common sightings at lower elevations as they fly south. Last November we were surprised by a young male Calliope at a feeder near our bedroom window in SaddleBrooke.  This is only one of five Calliopes reported on eBird in Pinal County since 1989.  All four of the other sightings were at Boyce Thompson Arboretum and none of them as late as November.  Our bird probably was as lost as he was late, but we’re hoping he’ll show up again this year.  Birds are a funny, often unpredictable lot.  Who knows, maybe this year we’ll get a condor.

(This article originally appeared in the September, 2014 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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