Curious Nature: Backyard hummingbirds
Vail, CO Colorado
Newlyweds and honeymooners are a common sight in the Vail Valley this time of year, but Colorado shares its romantic attraction with other animals, as well. Many birds journey here to mate and raise their young among our stunning scenery. Hummingbirds (family Trochilidae) are exclusive to the Western Hemisphere, and four species are native to our state. Rufous and calliope hummers migrate through in July and August after breeding farther south. Broad-tailed and black-chinned (our most common) breed in Colorado and may be seen here throughout the summer months.
With an iridescent rainbow of plumage, hummingbirds could claim to be the most flamboyant of our summer lovers. This “bling,” especially bright in males, is made of layers of tiny melanin platelets in the outer part of their feathers. The layers reflect light of varying wavelengths, depending on thickness, air content and the angle they are viewed in relation to the light source. They are so striking, Aztec kings are said to have worn cloaks made entirely of hummingbird skins. Native Americans wore earrings from them, and after contact, Europeans quickly took them into fashion as ornaments and decorations. By the middle of the 19th century, the market required hundreds of thousands of bird carcasses from South America. (Now their greatest threats come from loss of habitat and climate change, including severe weather events.)
Legend and folklore surround the bird because of its tininess, brilliant plumage and tremendously acrobatic flying skills. Mayan stories tell that the bird is actually the sun in disguise, courting a beautiful woman, the moon. The smallest animal with a backbone, they were long ago thought to be a cross between a bird and an insect. Most hummingbirds live about three years (the record is 12!) and have the highest metabolism of any noninsect animal, with a heart rate of as many as 1,200 beats per minute. They are active during the day and during cold nights can enter a state of torpor when heartbeat and breathing slow. They are also known to vigorously fight for food sources or to protect their young and have been seen attacking predatory blue jays and even hawks!
Hummingbirds are prolific pollinators, and at least 150 flowering plants in North America are structured in a way that accommodates the birds. Many of the flowers are larger, with little or no scent, and red or orange, with buds placed far apart. The colors and low scent levels are less attractive to bees and other insects. With their long tongues, the birds lap up nectar in the deepest part of the flower, brushing up against the stamens and pistils, spreading pollen.
They communicate with displays of flight, chirping and twittering especially when excited, and males will attract a female with their posturing. The humming sound is created as they flap their wings about 50 times per second. Territorial, they mate on neutral ground, with the female building the nest and caring for the young in her domain. If you have a nectar feeder in your yard, you may notice fewer birds during nesting time because the females often prefer insects for protein to raise their young. They have a good memory for food sources and will come back to the same flowers or feeders year after year.
Whether the birds are indeed courting the moon or just each other, their beauty and spirit may inspire a little love in each of us.
“Birds do it, bees do it,
Even educated fleas do it.
… It is nature that is all
Telling us to fall in love.”
– Cole Porter.
Emerald Gustowt is a volunteer for Walking Mountains Nature Center, with a background in wild bird rehabilitation, and is excited to be a migrator from the south herself.
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