Just for the birds: The hoveringbirds – Idaho Press


Broad-tailed hummingbird by Ceredig Roberts.
Black-chinned hummingbird by Terry Rich.
Rufous hummingbird by Ceredig Roberts.
Calliope Hummingbird by Wendy Miller.
Anna’s hummingbird by Ceredig Roberts.
Mexican violetear by flyingfabi.

Broad-tailed hummingbird by Ceredig Roberts.
Black-chinned hummingbird by Terry Rich.
Rufous hummingbird by Ceredig Roberts.
Calliope Hummingbird by Wendy Miller.
Anna’s hummingbird by Ceredig Roberts.
Mexican violetear by flyingfabi.

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I have always found it a bit odd hummingbirds weren’t originally called “hoveringbirds.” The 352 species in this family (Trochilidae) all hover, but I think you can debate whether or not they hum. The wing noise of most species is more like a whir. There is no musical undertone as I heard from my Dad when he’d hum “Mockin’ Bird Hill” on hot July mornings.
“Whir” brings up the possibility of “whirlybirds” or “whirlygigs.” The former is another name for helicopters and the latter for various silly devices that twirl in one way or another. “Twirlybirds?” No. Hummers are too serious for that.
A few species produce a metallic whine while flying. These include a species rare in southwestern Idaho but common in the higher elevations of Colorado — the broad-tailed hummingbird. The whine is produced by the wings of the male, specifically the tip of primary No. 10. Male Allen’s hummingbirds (not found here) produce a similar whine. In keeping with the endless variety in nature, the frequencies of these wing noises are different. Broad-tails whine at 6,000 Hz while Allen’s are at 9,000 Hz.
Let’s be happy no early taxonomist chose “whineybirds” for this subgroup and get off this rabbit trail by agreeing that none of these adjectives comes close to describing the aerial maneuvers these 352 species are capable of.
Hummingbirds are found only in the New World. On the other side of the planet, the hummingbird niche is filled to some degree by 143 species of sunbirds (Necatariniidae). You can see from the family name these birds are focused on nectar, as are hummingbirds. They are also mostly small and colorful, with beaks that vary from short and straight to long and curved, as with hummingbirds. But guess what sunbirds can’t do. They can’t fly backwards.
Returning to Idaho, we don’t have as many species of hummers (8) as, for example, do Arizona (18) or Texas (19). But lest you worry those two states will get uppity about their hummer tally, realize Colombia has 166 species, or nearly half of all hummingbirds.
Four of our species are classified by Avibase (avibase.bsc-eoc.org) as “rare/accidental.” That means there are only a few records for the state, and you’re probably not going to see them here. But, never say never. If you have a good hummingbird yard, keep watching. Hummers occasionally show up way, way out of range. For example, in August 2020 a Mexican violetear, typically found in central Mexico and Central America, showed up on a feeder in southwestern Wisconsin.
Our rare/accidental species are the ruby-throated, Anna’s, Costa’s, and broad-billed. Some of you will immediately say, whoa! I see Anna’s all the time! True enough. In fact, I’m surprised when I do not see Anna’s in Hulls Gulch, literally any time of the year. This is a species better classified as “rare and local.” There are a few around Idaho, but you have to know exactly where to look.
I turn to one of my favorite data sources — the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) — to see what the population trend for Anna’s is in Idaho. But due to the rarity of this species here, the BBS cannot estimate a long-term trend. But the Christmas Bird Count comes through because it only reports counts and does not attempt to calculate a trend. Anna’s have gone from 0 in 1990 to 19 birds in the winter of 2020-2021.
We can get another view of Anna’s by looking at eBird Species Maps. For example, during the period 1990-1991, there were no reports of this species in Idaho at any time of the year. But for the period 2020-2021, there were many reports. These include dozens of sightings in southwestern Idaho as well as birds in Bonner’s Ferry, Grangeville, Declo, and many other locations.
Thus, Anna’s hummingbirds are obviously increasing in Idaho. One good possibility is that the species is responding to a warming climate — one bit of good news in a world of bad news.
Our most common hummer is the black-chinned, a bird that can be found on almost any feeder anywhere during the breeding season. Black-chins prefer the lower elevations of southwestern Idaho. They like our big cottonwood trees, urban landscaping, and foothill stream sides, even when dry. You can find them perching in the tops of trees and at the ends of bare branches. They’re tiny, but the little bump they make is detectable. Keep looking.
Black-chins are replaced at higher elevations by the calliope hummingbird. This is not only the smallest hummer in North America but also the smallest breeding species on the continent. Calliopes breed in riparian vegetation along the edges of mountain rivers and streams. I find them relatively difficult to detect in thick willows. They’re easier to see during spring migration when they pause in our valleys for a week or two, visit feeders, and sit around like black-chins. An even better bet is to visit a friend with a mountain cabin and feeders in June.
A hummer with a different pattern of behavior around here is the rufous. They migrate north along the coast and Sierras in spring. While we get some then, we get many more during fall migration when they spread more broadly across the Intermountain West on the way back to their west Mexican wintering area.
Rufous hummers are famous for being especially pugnacious, driving other hummers away from feeders even when they seem to have drunk their fill. This defense of food sources is common in the hummingbird world, and you can find similar ruffians across Latin America. There also are species that are very tentative and seem put off by the slightest offensive. When the tentative bird is the one you want to see, and a tyrant is guarding the food supply, a birder can come to view the guard as an enemy, no matter his glittering throat.
The last regularly occurring hummer around here is the broad-tailed. I mentioned they have a distinctive “field mark” in the metallic whine produced by the wings of the male in flight. The few I’ve seen in the Boise area were detected by that whine. You are somewhat more apt to find them during the breeding season around Sun Valley, the South Hills, and City of Rocks.
So, how are our hummingbirds doing? Anna’s appear to be increasing. How about the others? For black-chinned, broad-tailed, rufous, and calliope, we don’t have very good data from the breeding season in Idaho. They aren’t detected enough on the BBS to provide good, long-term data. This is the result of them not being very common anywhere, and the fact they are small, quiet, fast moving, and hard to detect.
Species like this require specialized monitoring if we want better trend data. For example, a standardized hummingbird feeder monitoring program might work. Or for calliopes, for example, we might establish point counts along montane riparian zones. Because rufous mainly come through here during fall migration, Idaho is probably not the best place to track their trend. In fact, let’s look at BBS data from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
Unfortunately, there are significant population declines for rufous hummingbird in all three regions since 1966. This is probably bad news. But what if this hummer, like Anna’s, is simply moving north with global warming? The BBS can’t tell us because we don’t have enough BBS routes in the Yukon and Northwest Territories to figure it out.
Similarly, we can look at BBS data for black-chins and broad-tails from a broader region to see if there are problems with these species anywhere. At the scale of the Great Basin, black-chins show a positive, but non-significant trend. Maybe they’re stable or maybe we just don’t know. For broad-tails, they show a significant downward trend in the Southern Rockies where they are much more common. Not good.
A final place to look is the species assessment process of Partners in Flight (PIF). The ornithologists and other experts in PIF consider all sorts of information — breeding season trends, winter trends, habitat changes, potential threats from climate change, and more — to make a holistic judgement on the conservation status of a bird species.
The rufous hummingbird did make the PIF Watch List for the species of highest conservation concern in North America. Its steep population declines and relatively small winter range in western Mexico are the main threat factors. Our other hummers have avoided the list so far. But I have to think the west-wide drought, coupled with global warming, is hurting flowers and that will hurt hummers. We can’t begin to put out enough feeders to offset those losses. I hope American society will finally get serious about this existential threat.
Terry Rich can be contacted at terryrichbrd@gmail.com.
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