Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Calliope Hummingbird Stellula calliope
 

Description:

The smallest of all breeding birds in the United States and Canada. An Adult male Calliope weighs less than a penny. The species name is Greek for ‘beautiful voice’ and may refer to the muse of epic poetry; a seemingly inappropriate name for a bird of limited vocal ability. The male gorget of wine red streaks over a white background is unique, one reason this species is traditionally placed in its own genus.

Identification:

A very small hummingbird with a short black bill and very short tail with unique spade-shaped central feathers that widen significantly from a narrow base before tapering abruptly to a point (best developed in adults). Wingtip broad, blunt and curved.

Adult Male: Bright green above, creamy white below with green wash on sides and flanks. Gorget consists of wine red to reddish purple iridescence over white background; individual feathers white basally, ranging in shape from round or broadly oval and nearly flat at centre of gorget to very long, narrow, pointed, and convex at corners. Face is dull grayish, with slightly darker cheek, whitish mustachial stripe beginning at base of upper mandible. Wingtips extend to or beyond tip of very short, slightly notched tail. Tail feathers dull gray variably edged in cinnamon-rufous basally; R1 narrow at base, becoming wider towards tip before abruptly tapering to a spade-shaped point.

Adult Female: Bright grass green to golden green above, creamy white below washed with cinnamon-rufous on sides, flanks , and across lower breast. Gorget usually evenly stippled to spangled with dusky to brownish bronze, rarely with a few larger spangles at lower centre reflecting dull wine red. Face dull grayish with slightly darker cheek. Slightly notched tail usually falls short of wingtips. Central tail feathers green with or without narrow rufous edges at base; R3-5 (rarely R2-5) tipped white, usually with narrow edges of cinnamon-rufous basally. Undertail coverts washed pale cinnamon, paler at tips. Outer primary (P10) broad, blunt-tipped.

Juvenile: Male: Similar to adult female but usually with more heavily marked gorget, often with random spots, streaks, or patches of wine red iridescence. R1 always narrowly edged in dull cinnamon-rufous at base (difficult to see).

Female: Similar to adult female but with indistinct pale feather edges on upperparts. R1 green with blackish tip, no rufous edges at base; large white tip on R3, usually small white tip on R2.

Similar Species: Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbirds are slightly larger, with longer bill and tail, richer rufous wash to underparts, more rufous in outer tail feathers, and narrower, straighter primaries. Female and immature male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are much larger, with longer bill and tail, more rufous in outer tail feathers, and narrower, straighter primaries.

Behavior: Tail is often cocked upward, perpendicular to body, while hovering at flowers or feeders. Takes nectar from a wide variety of plants, including red currant, Indian paintbrush, orange honeysuckle, western columbine, skyrocket, and Rocky Mountain beeplant. Often takes nectar from flowers within inches of the ground. Takes insect prey mostly by fly-catching from an exposed perch. Feeds regularly at sapsucker wells. Males most assertive on breeding grounds. Displays are more often directed at females than rival males, which are usually chased. Dive display is U or J shaped, punctuated at bottom of arc with pzzt-zing.

Habitat: Breeds in montane conifer forests, in willows along streams, aspen thickets and older second growth following fires or clear cutting. Breeds at 4000-1000 feet, rarely as low as 500 feet. Winters from low-elevation thorn forest to humid pine forest in southwestern Mexico. Migrates through both montane and lowland habitats.

Information:

In absence of natural fires, sunny openings in forest canopy left by small-scale clear-cutting may be of benefit in stimulating growth of nectar plants and shrub habitat for nesting. Survival of migrants may be enhanced by feeders when natural nectar is scarce. Has reached at least six years of age in the wild and twelve years in captivity.
The Calliope Hummingbird is the sole member of its genus.

Conservation Status: Least concern but more data is needed.

References: Williamson, Sheri L. Peterson Field Guides – Hummingbirds of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
 

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