Introduction / Taxonomy
Everybody loves hummingbirds, right? There’s no controversy there, they are delightful little gems that add much entertainment and joy to our lives. But asking somebody what their favorite hummingbird is, results in a far more complex discussion. For me, the Calliope Hummingbird is the best of the North American species. As the smallest bird in the United States of America and Canada, they instantly capture my affection. What is it about small animals that automatically makes them adorable?
Then, knowing that this diminutive little character undertakes an epic migration to Mexico and back each year earns them considerable respect. They’re not just cute, Calliope Hummingbirds are seriously tough little cookies too. Looks are important as well, and in a crowded field the male Calliope stands out from the other hummers with its unique splayed and streaked magenta gorget.
Calliope Hummingbirds are part of the Selasphorous genus, which includes eight other species in North and Central America, all of fairly similar build and plumages.
• Kingdom: Animalia
• Phylum: Chordata
• Class: Aves
• Order: Apodiformes
• Family: Trochilidae
• Genus: Selasphorous
• Species: Selasphorous calliope
How to Identify a Calliope Hummingbird
All hummingbirds are small, but the minuscule build of the Calliope is particularly noticeable, and a good first identification pointer, even from a brief encounter. They really are tiny, weighing in at just 2 to 3 grams, a third of the weight of the wood warblers.
A decent view of a male with the throat pattern visible shows a very distinctive bird, Calliopes are the only North American hummingbird with a gorget of separated streaks rather than a solid block of color. The color varies depending on the lighting and how they are angled, from dark purple to pink-red, often shining brightly. They will raise these plumes during courtship display, revealing a white throat underneath; the rest of the underparts are also white. The top of the head and upper parts are green, again changing in tone with the angle and light, often looking rather glossy.
If the plumage coloration is not visible, for example, on a silhouetted bird, the small size should still be apparent, along with a relatively short bill and short tail. The tail does not project beyond the tips of the closed wings.
The courtship flight display is also a good distinguishing feature between male hummingbirds of different species. Male Calliopes perform steep U-shaped dives from a height of around 20 meters, with a popping sound at the bottom from the air vibrating over his braking tail feathers.
Females are trickier to identify, as they are for most hummingbird species, being mostly plain green above and whitish below. The buff wash on the flanks separates from other female Selasphorous hummingbirds except Rufous and Allen’s, which do have more extensive rufous-buff on the underside. Calliopes have less rufous in the tail, though I often find this difficult to see in the field, and is best distinguished in a photograph of a flying bird facing away from you. A rear view of one at a hummingbird feeder is your most likely chance to see this feature.
Where do Calliope Hummingbirds Live: Habitat
Calliope Hummingbirds come to mountainous regions of western North America in the summer to breed, in an area stretching from southern California up to British Colombia, mostly within the Rocky Mountains, finding open, scrubby habitat and early secondary growth. The nests are placed in thinly wooded areas, or the edge of young forests, and they like to feed on wildflower meadows and low, flowering bushes. Some will breed at just a few hundred meters above sea level, but the highest nests have been recorded at a hopping 3,400 meters; that’s some serious elevation for little lungs. They spend the winter in southern Mexico in dry scrub and open forest.
Calliope Hummingbird Migration
When you watch a little Calliope Hummingbird feeding on flowers in the Rocky Mountains in the summertime, darting around more like a bee than a bird, it’s hard to imagine them having the power to migrate huge distances to a different ecosystem, but that’s exactly what they do. The abundance of wildflowers and small tasty bugs that bring them to the mountains in the summer is not there all year round, so these birds have to move off in search of other resources.
Their chosen off-season location is Mexico, from Sinaloa to as far south as Oaxaca, a journey of about 2500 miles. In the spring, they follow the Pacific coast northwards before taking a turn inland to reach the Rocky Mountains. Males arrive first, in mid-April, and have some time to establish territories before the females show up in early May. For males, southbound migration starts after mating with the last female he can find within his territory. The fall migration route follows the Rocky Mountains rather than taking the spring route on the coast. In late June, males are already departing, and females will follow in July, one of the earliest migrations from North America.
Calliope Hummingbird Diet and Feeding
As is typical for hummingbirds, Calliopes feed mostly on nectar, which they collect from flowers or feeders provided by humans. Being as small as they are, Calliopes are easily pushed off flowering plants by larger hummingbirds, so they often feed on the very lowest flowers, close to the ground. These flowers are less favored by other birds, and it allows the Calliopes to keep a low profile. Calliopes have also been recorded visiting sap wells, the small holes chiseled out by Sapsuckers. Here they can feed both on the sap, a similar sugary liquid to nectar, and also on small insects that have been attracted to the wells.
They also feed on small insects that they catch in flight, often after watching from a favorite exposed perch and waiting to see a suitable prey item come into range before darting out to get it.
Calliope Hummingbird Breeding and Nesting
Males are the first to arrive at the breeding grounds between mid-April and early May. He will establish a territory that he will defend throughout the breeding season and where he will mate with several females, each territory is 0.2-0.3 hectares. His territorial display involves repeated diving in deep U-shaped patterns from heights of around 20 meters. This display is used to declare his territory to other males and also to attract females. His follow-up courtship with the female involves hovering in front of her and flashing his colorful throat feathers.
The female builds her tiny cup nest on top of a small branch, with a larger branches overhead to protect it from the weather and reduce its visibility to potential predators. Conifer trees are favored for nest sites, and the nest is often built on the spot where a pine cone was previously attached. This delicate abode is constructed largely of downy plant material, bark fibers, and other soft plant material, with lichens on the outside to aid camouflage and woven with spider webs.
She lays two white eggs and incubates them alone for fifteen days; the male plays no role in raising his offspring. After mating, he will continue to search for other females within his territory to partner with. While this may seem like a dubious life strategy to humans, this ensures that every female Calliope will have the opportunity to reproduce and raise as many youngsters as possible each season, which is vital for a species with such high mortality rate; each one may only have one breeding season in which to pass on their genes.
While incubating, the female needs to feed herself, so she will take regular breaks from the nest to visit nearby food sources. After hatching, the female looks after the chicks for another 18 to 20 days. Initially, she will spend much time brooding them, especially in bad weather. Later, as the chicks grow larger, she will be kept busy almost constantly trying to find enough food for them, which will mostly be insect prey. After fledging, the young will be fed by the female for a few days before becoming self-reliant.
Calliope Hummingbird Population
Calliopes are not the easiest bird to study, breeding as they do in rugged mountainous areas and wintering in southern Mexico, with a discreet migration in between, so there are no precise population counts. It is estimated, though, that there are around 4.5 million, with the population remaining stable in recent times.
Are Calliope Hummingbirds Endangered?
Calliope Hummingbirds are classified as being of ‘Least Concern’ by IUCN, thanks to their broad breeding range and large and stable population size.
Calliope Hummingbird Predators
Being as small as they are, all hummingbirds live a life fraught full of danger, and Calliopes are no exception to this, with a long list of potential predators lining them up as a meal. For hummingbirds in residential areas, domestic cats are the biggest threat, and a reason to carefully consider whether you should put up a hummingbird feeder or not; you don’t want to encourage birds into an unsafe environment. Predators of adult hummingbirds in natural habitats are mostly small birds of prey, including Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks; only the fastest predators can catch an adult hummingbird. The nest is more vulnerable, especially when the female leaves the eggs or chicks to feed herself. Opportunistic birds roaming through the trees would quickly snaffle the nest contents without the female hummingbird there to drive them away, which she is very capable of doing, even to surprisingly bigger birds.
Calliope Hummingbird Lifespan
The oldest known Calliope Hummingbird reached the age of eight. However, most will only survive a few years. Life is fast and furious for hummingbirds.
Answer: Calliope Hummingbirds are named after the Greek muse Calliope, who presided over epic poetry and eloquence. The word calliope actually means ‘beautiful voice,’ kallos is beauty, and ops is voice. It’s unclear why the hummingbird received this name; it would be generous indeed to describe their squeaking and twittering as beautiful. Calliope Hummingbirds used to be placed in their own genus, Stellula. This is the Latin word for little star and referred to the star-like pattern on the throat of the males.
Answer: Yes, Calliopes will readily come to gardens to use hummingbird feeders. Your garden will also be more attractive to them if you have a range of native flowers growing. Allowing insects to live on your land and leaving spider cobwebs in place also makes for a hummingbird-friendly environment. Small insects are an important part of a hummingbird’s diet, and hummingbirds will catch them in flight and even pick spiders from hanging cobwebs, and the webs themselves are used for nest building. Fruiting trees and the decaying fallen fruit will attract the tiny fruit flies that are an important part of a hummingbird’s diet.
As well as considering food sources, it is important to create a safe haven free from unnatural predators. Domestic cats are major predators at bird feeders, so a cat-free zone is best if you want to see hummingbirds and other species thriving. Providing a source of water is also a good idea, as hummingbirds do enjoy frequent bathing.
Answer: Yes, they certainly do! The Rufous Hummingbird migrates even further. Breeding as far north as Alaska and wintering in the forests of the state of Guerrero, Mexico, they fly up to 4000 miles each way, quite an astonishing journey.
Answer: Not quite. With an average weight of two to three grams, Calliopes are certainly tiny birds, but the crown for the smallest hummingbird rests with the Bee Humminbird of Cuba, the smallest bird on the planet. These diminutive creatures weigh in at just 1.95 grams (or 0.069 ounces) on average. When one of these whizzes past you, it does seem like a large insect is flying by.
Answer: The largest hummingbird is the Giant Hummingbird of South America. Found mainly in the Andes mountains (a good area is around Cusco if you’re ever doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu), they are around the same size as a European Starling or Northern Cardinal, and weigh around 20 grams, nearly ten times the weight of our Calliope Hummingbirds! Remarkably, Giant Hummingbirds are even slightly larger than the world’s smallest bird of prey, the Black-thighed Falconet of southeast Asia.
Teeny-tiny creatures always capture our affection, and the Calliope Hummingbird is no different. Life is tough for small animals, and the Calliope defies all odds to live a quite remarkable life, split between the high Rocky Mountains and the dry forest of southern Mexico, with a long and perilous journey in between. Their beautiful plumage is a delight to observe, particularly the male’s unique throat pattern. Watching them buzzing around a wildflower meadow on a sunny mountain morning is surely one of the most aesthetic birdwatching experiences out there.
- Calder, W. A. and L. L. Calder (2020). Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
- Healy, S. and W. A. Calder (2020). Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
- BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Selasphorus calliope. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 07/10/2022
- Calder, W. A. (1971). Temperature relationships and nesting of the Calliope Hummingbird. Condor 73:314-321
- Clark CJ (2011). “Wing, tail, and vocal contributions to the complex acoustic signals of courting Calliope hummingbirds” (PDF). Current Zoology. 57 (2): 187–196
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