Summertime in the United States of Hummingbirds
July 29, 2014
Hummingbirds are special—brilliant, tiny, precision-flying creatures that glitter like jewels in the sun and dazzle with their aerial acrobatics, flying fast 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, including these four that 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.
Black-chinned Hummingbirds are 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.
Anna’s Hummingbirds are dazzling with iridescent emerald feathers and sparkling rose-pink throats. 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 and named it after the French duchess of Rivoli, Anna de Belle Masséna. These hummingbirds live along the Pacific Coast and in many areas are present year-round.
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.
More about hummingbirds:
- This post covers just four common species—to explore the ranges of 10 North American hummingbirds, visit our Citizen Science blog.
- Explore the hummingbirds of the U.S. and Canada in our All About Birds species guide.
- Learn about the hundreds of hummingbird species south of the border at Neotropical Birds Online.