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Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Selasphorus platycercus ORDER: CAPRIMULGIFORMES FAMILY: TROCHILIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A jewel of high mountain meadows, male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds fill the summer air with a loud, metallic trills as they fly. They breed at elevations up to 10,500 feet where nighttime temperatures regularly plunge below freezing. To make it through a cold night, they slow their heart rate and drop their body temperature, entering a state of torpor. As soon as the sun comes up, displaying males show off their rose-magenta throats while performing spectacular dives. After attracting a mate, females raise the young on their own.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
3.1–3.5 in
8–9 cm
Wingspan
5.1 in
13 cm
Weight
0.1–0.2 oz
2.8–4.5 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Calliope Hummingbird, slightly smaller than a Rufous Hummingbird.
Other Names
  • Colibrie vibrador, Chupamirto cola ancha (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Broad-tailed Hummingbird enters torpor, a slowed metabolic state, on cold nights. It maintains a body temperature of about 54°F (12.2°C) when ambient temperatures fall below 44°F (10°C).
  • Hummingbirds are energetic and aggressive little birds. Breeding male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds dive at and chase away unwelcome visitors to their territories, and the better the territory the more chasing that occurs. In one feeder-rich area a male made over 40 chases per hour in an effort to keep all of the sugar water to himself.
  • The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is one tough hummingbird. Even on summer nights, cold air often descends into mountain valleys, dropping temperatures to below freezing. The nesting female copes with these temperature extremes by building a well-insulated nest and entering torpor, but the male often heads upslope, out of the pocket of cold air that collected in the valley. This move can reduce his energy costs of thermoregulation by about 15%.
  • Male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds produce a loud trill with their wingtips as they fly, but over time the feathers that produce this sound wear down from use. By midwinter the trill is often inaudible. Before the next breeding season roles around they grow new feathers and are ready to trill away.
  • When males dive down upon females during courtship displays they sometimes pin a female down if she is sitting in low vegetation.
  • The longest-lived Broad-tailed Hummingbird was a female, and over 12 years, 2 months old, when she was recaptured and rereleased during a banding operation in Colorado in 1987. She had been banded in the same state in 1976.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds breed in meadows and open woodlands, especially pinyon-juniper, pine-oak, evergreen, and montane scrub and thickets from around 5,000–10,500 feet elevation. During migration they move through highland meadows to lowlands with abundant flowers. In winter, they forage in pine-oak forests, dry thorn forests, and tropical highlands throughout Mexico

Food


Nectar

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds drink nectar from flowers, especially species such as larkspur, red columbine, indian paintbrush, sage, and scarlet gilia as well as sugar water from feeders. During spring migration, they also feed on flowers that are not typically used by other hummingbirds, including pussy willow, currant, and glacier lily. Nectar is a low-protein food, so they also eat small insects, especially nesting females, and feed insects to their nestlings. They glean insects from leaves, snatch them from midair, or pick them out of spiderwebs. Sometimes they use sap as a nectar substitute, visiting sapwells excavated by Red-naped Sapsuckers.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.5–0.6 in
1.2–1.5 cm
Egg Width
0.3–0.4 in
0.8–1 cm
Incubation Period
16–19 days
Nestling Period
21–26 days
Egg Description
White and unmarked.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and naked.
Nest Description

Females build and tend the nests alone. The female builds a tiny cup-shaped nest out of spiderwebs and gossamer, which provides excellent insulation, and helps conserve heat in the cold of high altitudes. It is often placed under overhanging branches, keeping the nest warmer than surrounding areas, and reducing nighttime energy requirements of the incubating female. She forms the nest cup by twisting the material around with her body and feet while sitting in the nest. The thick inner cup is made out of spiderweb and gossamer, and after forming the cup, she camouflages the outside of it with bits of lichen, moss, and bark fragments. Material may be stolen from other nests and is frequently added during incubation, with the nest sometimes becoming taller over time. It takes about 4–5 days for her to build a nest, less if built upon a previous nest. The nest has an outer diameter of about 2 inches and a 0.8-inch inside diameter, but it stretches as the chicks grow, becoming more platform shaped. Sometimes the female will reuse a nest from a previous season, adding fresh material to what was left.

Nest Placement

Tree

The female looks for a place sheltered from cold high-elevation nights to build her nest. She often places her nest on an evergreen or aspen branch with overhead cover or in a willow or alder thicket, anywhere from 1–5 feet above the ground.

Behavior


Hovering

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds hover to snatch insects from the air or above flowers to drink nectar. When hovering, they beat their wings at about 50 wingbeats per second. Males also hover above tall vegetation to keep an eye out over their territory, chasing away unwelcome visitors. During courtship males perform spectacular aerial displays for females, involving a series of climbs and dives while loudly trilling their wings. Males climb high into the sky and rapidly dive toward the ground, pulling out of the dive in front of a female. If a male loses sight of a female, he hovers high above the ground and looks around for her. Despite the elaborate displays, males don't form pair bonds and are promiscuous; males often mate with several females in one breeding season. Males also do not feed incubating females or care for the young even after they fledge. When the nights are cold or if they cannot obtain enough food to keep their body temperature up, it is not uncommon for both sexes, to go into a hypothermic torpor at night. In torpor they slow their heart rate and drop their body temperature to save energy. Because males are not caring for their young, they can also leave their territories at night when cold air descends into the breeding area, seeking warmer areas elsewhere.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are numerous and fairly common, but their numbers declined by almost 1.5% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 52%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 10 million birds, with 57% breeding in the United States and 98% spending all or part of the year in Mexico. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Watch List. Causes of the decline are not clear, but climate may affect both breeding success and overwinter survival. In some parts of the breeding range, increasing temperatures have caused plants at high elevation breeding sites in the Rocky Mountains to flower sooner, shortening the time Broad-tailed Hummingbirds have to take advantage of the nectar sources. This mismatch in nectar availability could decrease nesting success. Severe winter temperatures on the wintering grounds could also affect survival. In the late 1950s, Colorado reported that fewer hummingbirds returned to breed following an apparently severe winter in Mexico. Window strikes, collisions with cars, and electric fences are also threats to Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. Broad-taileds, like other hummingbirds, may benefit from the popularity of hummingbird feeders, which may allow for increases in population, at least in settled areas, due to increased nectar availability.

Credits

Range Map Help

Broad-tailed Hummingbird Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Medium-distance migrant.

Backyard Tips

If you live within the range of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, putting up a sugar water feeder may give you an opportunity to watch one in your yard. Use a ratio of one part table sugar dissolved in four parts water, and don’t use food coloring. Learn more about feeding hummingbirds.

Adding flowers to your yard is another way to attract hummingbirds while also adding beauty to your yard. Learn more about creating a hummingbird garden at Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

Look out for Broad-tailed Hummingbirds at feeders. Listen for the male's loud wing trills as he guards territory around a choice feeder spot.

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds spend only a few short months in the United States so you'll need to get to a meadow sometime from late May to early August to catch them. In these areas, stop along forest openings and meadows that are filled with flowers and listen for the loud metallic trill of their wings. Hummingbirds frequently return to one or two favorite perches, so a great way to get good looks is to follow one with your eyes (not binoculars) until it lands on its perch. Visiting a hummingbird feeder in the mountains is also a good way to get good looks at Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.

You Might Also Like

Not all sweetness and light: the real diet of hummingbirds, Living Bird, Autumn 2010.

Western hummingbirds in the East–set your feeders out!!: keep your feeders up in the fall for a chance at rare hummingbirds, eBird, November 9, 2012.

When do you see more hummingbirds at your feeders?, Project FeederWatch, June 6, 2014.

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

Annual Changes In Hummingbird Migration Revealed By Birders’ Sightings, All About Birds, March 25, 2015.

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