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.
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.
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.)