Summertime in the United States of Hummingbirds
July 29, 2020
Originally published July 2014; updated July 2020.
Hummingbirds are special—brilliant, tiny, precision-flying creatures that glitter like jewels in the sun and dazzle with their aerial acrobatics. We love to watch them flying fast and then stopping instantly, hovering, and zipping up, down, or backwards with exquisite control.
They’re strictly a New World animal, and they fascinated the first Europeans who arrived in North America. Christopher Columbus wrote about them. Many naturalists at the time wondered if they were a cross between a bird and an insect (at one point being called “flybirds”).
More than a dozen species of hummingbirds regularly summer in the United States, with nearly 350 species in all of the Americas. In the U.S. and Canada, these four are most commonly seen at backyard feeders:
- Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depart for Central America in early fall, with many crossing the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight. To accomplish this incredible migratory feat, they feast on nectar and insects and double their body mass, from 3 grams to 6 grams (or from the weight of a penny to the weight of a nickel). Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have the largest breeding range of any North American hummer. See a slideshow of more great Ruby-throated Hummingbird photos.
- Black-chinned Hummingbirds are among the most adaptable of all North American hummingbirds, found from deserts to mountain forests and from urban areas to pristine natural areas. The Black-chinned Hummingbird’s tongue has two grooves that suck up nectar like a sponge. Then the bird retracts the tongue and squeezes the nectar into its mouth. See a slideshow of more great Black-chinned Hummingbird photos.
- Anna’s Hummingbirds are dazzling with iridescent emerald feathers and sparkling rose-pink throats and crowns. Nineteenth-century French naturalist René Primevère Lesson was mesmerized by “the bright sparkle of a red cap of the richest amethyst” on the male’s head. These hummingbirds live along the Pacific Coast of North America—one of the few places in the world birders can see a hummingbird in a eucalyptus tree! In much of their range, these hardy hummers are present year-round. See a slideshow of more great Anna’s Hummingbird photos.
- Rufous Hummingbirds are small but feisty. They chase off larger hummingbirds at flowers and feeders, and they’ve even been seen chasing away chipmunks. Rufous Hummingbirds have the northernmost breeding range of any hummingbird, yet in fall they migrate about 4,000 miles south to Mexico—in what is possibly the longest migration relative to body size of any bird. See a slideshow of more great Rufous Hummingbird photos.
Hummingbird images: Ruby-throated by Laura Erickson; Black-chinned by Brian Sullivan; Anna’s by Nancy Starczyk; Rufous by Chris Wood.
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