June 03, 2015

West Side Hummingbirds

A black-chinned hummingbird. Photo: Audubon Society.
A black-chinned hummingbird. Photo: Audubon Society.|| A black-chinned hummingbird. Photo: Audubon Society.|| ||
By The West View

There are about 750 different kinds of hummingbirds, and all of them are only found here in the Americas! Here on the west side of Salt Lake City we are only visited by two species, the broad-tailed and the black-chinned. It is not uncommon for locals to mistake the females and younger “hummers” for a different species because they can all look so different. The broad-tails migrate south in the fall as far as Guatemala, and black-chinned as far as Mexico.

The broad-tailed hummer, Selasphorus platycercus, is the larger of the two at four inches long. The adult male has a brilliant bronzy-green crown, back and sides, with a hot, rose-pink throat patch (gorget), mostly white below that, and a  long, broad, rounded black tail. The female look mostly the same except that the gorget is white with dots, pale orange below. The female’s tail is also similar, but has bright white corners.

Males beat their wings to create a loud “whirr” or whistle, sometimes accompanied by a harsh trilling call. The female’s call is a short series of soft “chips.” Both fan their broad tails as they hover to feed.

The black-chinned hummer, Archilochus alexandri, is smaller at only three and half inches.  The male also has a metallic green top and sides, but the gorget is black above and iridescent violet below, white mid-belly stripe, and a relatively small tail with pointy feathers. The female is, again, similar to the male except for its all-white under parts, and the green tail with bright white corners similar to female broad-tails.

Males can be very aggressive for their size, and often chase off all other hummers in their territory with very loud “buzzing” wing beats, often associated with a loud “teeuw” or “tchew” call, that escalates to high squeals when chasing off other hummers. Males often duel with each other by flying high to then dive straight down together towards the ground at high speeds, only to pull out at the last moment, in a perilous game of chicken. The noise they make with their wings in these dives is very impressive, indeed.  The younger birds of both species are more difficult to identify.

Most hummers beat their wings so fast that the wings almost become invisible, allowing them to hover in midair, especially while feeding.  Both species can be extremely aggressive for their small size, and are willing to attack larger animals, even humans, especially when defending their tiny nests.  I’ve been attacked, and had to defend myself from what seemed to be a great big, pissed off bumble bee. Those tiny, little, woven, cup-like nests can be found atop of tree branches and twigs, and can only hold two white, pea-sized eggs, which hatch into chicks more reminiscent of insects than birds.

After the chicks leave the nest and are able to fly, they spend most of the day feeding on  insects that are high in protein, like mosquitos and midges, which they artfully pick out the air with their relatively long bills. Later in life they use these long bills to reach nectar deep in flowers like trumpet vines for their high energy needs. Many of us put out red hummingbird feeders full of sugar solutions to attract these extremely entertaining little birds. Placing feeders in the shade where they are more easily spotted often attracts both sexes of both species, where they all try to claim and defend it against all others.

I can sit for  along time watching these little rascals. How about you?

Dan Potts is a Poplar Grove resident, local naturalist and President of the Salt Lake County Fish and Game Association.