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Rufous Hummingbird

Selasphorus rufus ORDER: APODIFORMES FAMILY: TROCHILIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The feistiest hummingbird in North America. The brilliant orange male and the green-and-orange female Rufous Hummingbird are relentless attackers at flowers and feeders, going after (if not always defeating) even the large hummingbirds of the Southwest, which can be double their weight. Rufous Hummingbirds are wide-ranging, and breed farther north than any other hummingbird. Look for them in spring in California, summer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and fall in the Rocky Mountains as they make their annual circuit of the West.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
2.8–3.5 in
7–9 cm
Wingspan
4.3 in
11 cm
Weight
0.1–0.2 oz
2–5 g
Relative Size
About the same size as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Other Names
  • Colibrí roux (French)
  • Chupamirto dorado, Colibri colica (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Rufous Hummingbird is a common visitor to hummingbird feeders. It is extremely territorial at all times of year, attacking any visiting hummingbird, including much larger species. They’ve been seen chasing chipmunks away from their nests.
  • The Rufous Hummingbird makes one of the longest migratory journeys of any bird in the world, as measured by body size. At just over 3 inches long, its roughly 3,900-mile movement (one-way) from Alaska to Mexico is equivalent to 78,470,000 body lengths. In comparison, the 13-inch-long Arctic Tern's one-way flight of about 11,185 mi is only 51,430,000 body lengths. (AAB)
  • During their long migrations, Rufous Hummingbirds make a clockwise circuit of western North America each year. They move up the Pacific Coast in late winter and spring, reaching Washington and British Columbia by May. As early as July they may start south again, traveling down the chain of the Rocky Mountains. People first realized this pattern after examining detailed field notes and specimens, noting the birds’ characteristic dates of arrival on each part of the circuit.
  • The Rufous Hummingbird has an excellent memory for location, no doubt helping it find flowers from day to day, or even year to year. Some birds have been seen returning from migration and investigating where a feeder had been the previous year, even though it had since been moved.
  • The Rufous Hummingbird breeds as far north as southeastern Alaska – the northernmost breeding range of any hummingbird in the world. Of the western hummingbirds that occasionally show up in the east, the Rufous Hummingbird is the most frequent.
  • Rufous Hummingbirds, like most other hummingbirds, beat their wings extremely fast to be able to hover in place. The wingbeat frequency of Rufous Hummingbirds has been recorded at 52–62 wingbeats per second.
  • The Rufous Hummingbird is not a colonially nesting species; however, there have been reports from Washington state that have 20 or more Rufous Hummingbird nests only a few yards apart in the same tree. (From the BNA)
  • Hummingbirds are hard to catch, but there are records of Rufous Hummingbirds being caught by a large flycatcher (Brown-crested Flycatcher) and by a frog.
  • The oldest recorded Rufous Hummingbird was 8 years 11 months old.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Rufous Hummingbirds typically breed in open or shrubby areas, forest openings, yards, and parks, and sometimes in forests, thickets, swamps, and meadows from sea level to about 6,000 feet. During their migration, look for Rufous Hummingbirds in mountain meadows up to 12,600 feet elevation. In Mexico, wintering Rufous Hummingbirds live in oak, pine, and juniper woods at 7,500 to 10,000 feet elevation, shrubby areas, and thorn forests.

Food


Nectar

Rufous Hummingbirds feed primarily on nectar from colorful, tubular flowers including columbine, scarlet gilia, penstemon, Indian paintbrush, mints, lilies, fireweeds, larkspurs, currants, and heaths. Rufous Hummingbirds get protein and fat from eating insects, particularly gnats, midges, and flies taken from the air, and aphids taken from plants.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–3 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.5 in
1.3 cm
Egg Width
0.3 in
0.8 cm
Incubation Period
15–17 days
Nestling Period
15–19 days
Egg Description
Tiny, white (about a half-inch long).
Condition at Hatching
Naked apart from sparse gray down along the back, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest alone using soft plant down held together with spider web. She decorates (or camouflages) the outside with lichen, moss, and bark. Finished nests are about 2 inches across on the outside, with an inner cup width of about an inch. Nests may be reused the following year, not necessarily by the same individual.

Nest Placement

Tree

Females begin nesting within 3 days of arrival on their breeding grounds. They put their nests up to about 30 feet high in coniferous or deciduous trees such as Sitka spruce, western red cedar, Douglas-fir, pines, hemlock, birch, maples, thimbleberry, and occasionally ferns or vines. Nests are hidden in drooping branches, sometimes with several nests (up to 20) in the space of just a few yards.

Behavior


Hovering

Rufous Hummingbirds hover at flowers to sip nectar or fly from one to another in fast, straight lines. When not feeding they perch nearby, then launch themselves after any other hummingbirds that appear. All ages and both sexes are aggressive, even during brief 1-2 week stopovers in the course of migration, at which times they may chase off resident Broad-tailed, Broad-billed, Violet-crowned, and Black-chinned hummingbirds. Males may chase off females from feeders even during the breeding season. You may see Rufous Hummingbirds picking insects out of the air, out of spider webs, or from leaves or bark. When agitated, they fan their tails and chip, and males flash their iridescent throat patches. Males perform a steep oval or J-shaped courtship flight when a female enters their breeding territory. If the female perches, the male may switch to low, horizontal figure-8s.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Rufous Hummingbird populations declined by over 2 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 62 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 11 million with 100 percent spending some part of the year in Mexico, 52 percent in the U.S., and 48 percent breeding in Canada. This U.S.-Canada Stewardship species is listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. They rate a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are on the 2012 Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

Rufous Hummingbird Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. Rufous Hummingbirds travel nearly 4,000 miles from breeding grounds in Alaska and northwest Canada to wintering sites in Mexico. They travel north up the Pacific Coast in spring and return by the Rocky Mountains in late summer and fall (see Cool Facts).

Backyard Tips

Rufous Hummingbirds may take up residence (at least temporarily) in your garden if you grow hummingbird flowers or put out feeders. But beware! They may make life difficult for any other hummingbird species that visit your yard. If you live on their migration route, visiting Rufous Hummingbirds are likely to move on after just a week or two.

Make sugar water mixtures with about one-quarter cup of sugar per cup of water. Food coloring is unnecessary; table sugar is the best choice. Change the water before it grows cloudy or discolored and remember that during hot weather, sugar water ferments rapidly to produce toxic alcohol.

Find This Bird

Backyards and flower-filled parks are good places to find Rufous Hummingbirds while they’re around, but these birds spend much of the year on the move. Check out the maps and charts from eBird to find out when Rufous Hummingbirds are reported in your area. You can select any location to display.

Get Involved

Wildflowers that Keep Out Bees: A study shows why bees can’t raid some hummingbird flowers

Keep track of the Rufous Hummingbirds at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Look for Rufous Hummingbirds nests and contribute valuable data about them through NestWatch

Western Hummingbirds in the East: How to attract, identify, and report late-season vagrants to eBird

You Might Also Like

The Flight of the Hummingbird: How hummers hover

The Hummingbird Diet: How to gain weight and keep it (Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center)

The Wonders of Spider Silk: expandable nests

All About Birds blog, Flyways for Flyweights: Small Birds Capitalize on Weather Patterns During Epic Migrations, May 15, 2014.

All About Birds blog, Here’s What to Feed Your Summer Bird Feeder Visitors, July 11, 2014.

All About Birds blog, These 8 Unexpected Migration Routes Give You Reason to Go Birding in Summer, July 16, 2014.

All About Birds blog, Summertime in the United States of Hummingbirds, July 29, 2014.