The Lucifer hummingbird, also known as the Lucifer sheartail due to the male’s long, narrow forked tail, is a medium-sized hummingbird that lives in high-altitude deserts. You’ll have a hard time finding them in North America, as they have a limited distribution there and are found mainly found in Mexico.
I live in an area with few hummingbird species, each time I learn about a new species, I wish I lived somewhere where the diversity of species is much higher – chickadees and finches don’t have the same appeal.
I can’t imagine having a dozen or more potential hummingbird species to tell apart! As a biologist, I find it even more fascinating that this is another hummingbird species adapted to hot, dry conditions.
When I started as a naïve birdwatcher, I imagined that hummingbirds were strictly humid, tropical creatures – after all, that’s where the most colorful birds are found.
To learn that some live in deserts instead and then migrate hundreds of kilometers to overwinter is simply incredible. Join me in learning about one of those species, the Lucifer hummingbird.
Bottom Line up Front
Male Lucifer hummingbirds have the typical magenta iridescent throat patch you expect from a hummingbird. With a heavy curved bill, they look top-heavy, especially females, as they have a much shorter tail than males.
You can find these hummers in a few places in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in dry, open, high-elevation habitats, but most of their population occurs in Mexico, where they also overwinter.
The males have an unusual breeding tactic where they display in front of nest-building females instead of the usual strategy of females seeking out territorial males. We still have a lot to learn about this migratory species whose population in the United States is probably augmented by feeders.
Lucifer hummingbirds are classified using the following taxonomy:
- Kingdom Animalia
- Phylum Chordata
- Class Aves
- Order Apodiformes
- Family Trochilidae
- Subfamily Trochilinae
- Tribe Mellisugini
- Genus Calothorax
The Tribe Mellisugini is informally referred to as the ‘bee’ hummingbirds, as it includes the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird. There are 37 species in 16 genera in this group.
The genus name, Calothorax, is from Ancient Greek, and describes the males: ‘kalos’ means ‘beautiful,’ and ‘thorax’ means ‘breast.’ Of course, most male hummingbirds have a ‘beautiful breast,’ so that doesn’t tell us why this particular species got the genus name that reflects that trait.
This genus, assigned in 1840 by George Robert Gray, may have been one of the earlier ones described and was given that name just because it was named earlier.
The single other species in this genus is the Beautiful hummingbird (C. pulcher), which is restricted entirely to Mexico and only overlaps with Lucifer hummingbirds during the non-breeding season.
The other common name for the two species in this genus is ‘sheartail’, a description shared with the closely-related genus, Doricha, which contains the Mexican sheartail (restricted to Mexico) and the Slender sheartail (restricted to Mexico and Central America). ‘Sheartail’ refers to the male’s long, narrow tail feathers.
How to Identify Lucifer Hummingbirds
Lucifer hummingbirds are medium-sized, weighing 3-4g and about 10cm long, with a long, black curved bill that is 19-23mm long.
The heavy curved bill of these hummers makes their head look disproportionately large for their body size, especially for the females with their short tails. Most of the head and back of both sexes are iridescent emerald green, but that is where the similarity in color ends.
Males have a magenta or purplish throat (gorget) that flares out on each side, and when they display to a female, the feathers extend into four separate finger-like projections on each side, looking vaguely octopus-like. White feathers border the throat patch to the sides and below, making the color contrast even more vivid.
Their belly is gray, and they have a small cinnamon flank patch. They have a long, narrow, deeply forked tail that extends well beyond the wingtips at rest, but the fork is rarely visible as the tail feathers are held together except during courtship.
In contrast, females have short tails. They are cinnamon-buff colored on their breast, flanks, and throat and have a pale line extending from the back of the eye that sets off a dusky patch of feathers extending below the eye.
Though uncommon (probably less than 2% occurrence), adult females may have some metallic feathers on their throats, similar to juvenile males.
Where Does Lucifer Hummingbird Live: Habitat
Lucifer hummingbirds barely enter the United States; they breed in southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona and are known from one disjunct location in west Texas: Big Bend National Park.
Since there are a few disjunct, small breeding locations in Mexico their breeding range is not fully known, or their range is expanding, and these are vagrants.
These hummers are found in desert scrub habitats on arid hillsides during the breeding season (March/April-August/September, depending on location), particularly in dry canyons, and occasionally use grasslands. In Mexico, they breed in the central and northern arid plateau and mountain slopes at high altitudes, between 3,500 to 5,500 feet.
They are migratory and move farther south in Mexico to overwinter, but detailed information about migratory movements is lacking. Where they overwinter in central Mexico, they use scrub habitats, pine-oak woodland, subtropical scrub, thorn forest, or tropical deciduous forest canyons.
Lucifer Hummingbird Diet and Feeding
Lucifer hummingbirds prefer to feed on agave plants, such as century plants, but will also feed on various other flowering plants, when available.
Agaves have large flowers pollinated by bats; hummingbirds are, therefore, nectar thieves as they do not provide pollination (they are too small to hit the right part of the flower to get pollen on them) in return for getting nectar.
Even though agaves produce a lot of nectar, Lucifer hummingbirds place themselves in a conundrum by relying on them. Dead agave flower stalks provide nest sites for carpenter bees (Xylocopa californica).
These bees cut the bases of other smaller flowers, which can reduce nectar so much that there isn’t enough left for Lucifer hummingbirds to feed.
These hummers will also come to hummingbird feeders. They also catch insects while flying (such as flies) and sometimes eat ones caught in spider webs (in addition to the spiders themselves).
Lucifer Hummingbird Breeding
Lucifer hummingbirds are polygamous (males mate with multiple females) and do not form pair bonds, which is typical of hummingbirds. However, in most hummingbirds, the females find the males and watch him display in his territory.
Lucifer hummingbirds do it a little differently – males find females building nests and perform their display at that location. A male displays by approaching the female very close, erecting his throat feathers, and hovering.
Then he shuttles quickly back and forth and makes loud rustling noises with his wings (described as sounding like an electric fan or deck of cards being shuffled), followed by an ascent to 20-30m and then a sudden quick dive in front of her.
If you’re wondering why he has a long, forked tail, this is why: he flares his forked tail at the base of the dive and makes a wack-wack-wack sound with those feathers. He may display to a female 3-5 times in an hour.
It is unclear why, but male Lucifer hummingbirds will even display to females after they have laid their eggs or are feeding nestlings. A possible explanation is that this late display happens during a female’s first clutch, with the male hoping to be chosen as the father for her second clutch.
Lucifer Hummingbird Nesting
The primary plants preferred for nesting are cholla, ocotillo, or lechuguilla, usually located on steep rocky slopes. Nests take up to 2 weeks to build and are placed 2-10 feet off the ground on a horizontal branch.
The nests are mainly made from soft plant fibers and are camouflaged with lichens and small leaves held together by spider webs. Nests are sometimes reused in subsequent years.
Lucifer Hummingbird Eggs
Like all hummingbirds, Lucifers lay 2 eggs, with the second laid 2 days after the first. They can have a second brood in a nesting season, but likely only in wetter years when enough food is available; it takes a lot of nectar to feed an adult and two offspring.
Again like all hummers, the female is responsible for all nest construction and nestling care; the male contributes sperm only. The incubation period lasts 15 days, and the nestling period lasts 19-24 days.
Lucifer Hummingbird Population
The first record of a Lucifer hummingbird in the United States was a bird collected in 1874 in southeast Arizona, but they were not seen again for 70-odd years in that area. In contrast, the population in Big Bend National Park (Texas) has existed for at least 90 years, even though it doesn’t appear to be connected to the rest of the breeding locations.
This pattern creates more questions than it answers about whether all these northern observations are recent additions to North America’s avifauna or reflect effort in areas typically not inhabited by people.
Their population estimate is 200,000 individuals, with only 5,000 (2.5%) occurring in the United States. However, accurate censuses of their numbers still need to be improved, especially because artificial feeders may be helping to increase their population size in the US.
Is the Lucifer Hummingbird Endangered?
No, it is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern. Due to their preference for arid, rugged habitats, they haven’t lost many areas to human modifications.
Yet humans have persecuted them in other ways; for instance, they were hunted around Mexico City in the 1800s and either sold stuffed or alive in cages, a practice which has mainly stopped though some are still killed and sold as love charms.
Lucifer Hummingbird Habits
Male Lucifer hummingbirds can defend feeding territories but will also move around to feed from available plants. They are subordinate to black-chinned hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri).
Some males at least show site fidelity and return to the same feeding locations for multiple years. Females defend small territories around nests and flowering plants, but there is no evidence they return to the same territories in subsequent years.
Both males and females give two types of calls that are used in a variety of contexts (against intruders, towards the other sex, when feeding): a dry ‘chip’ call, sometimes with 2 or 3 notes strung together in series, and a ‘chirp-trill’ which is louder than the chip and is a single or doubled note.
Males also give a short, thin, wheezy call, less than a second long, that is audible only at close range and is used in territorial displays and possibly during courtship.
Lucifer Hummingbird Predators
Possible predators include Scott’s oriole and loggerhead shrike, though it is unclear whether these birds targeted the nestlings or the female.
Otherwise, other species of birds, mammals, and snakes are all known predators of chicks or eggs in hummingbirds’ nests in general, and any co-occurring species would likely target a yummy nest of helpless chicks if found.
Lucifer Hummingbird Lifespan
The maximum age recorded so far was 7 years, 5 months, but likely these hummingbirds can live longer, and an age of 10 years or more is not unrealistic based on longevity in other species.
Answer: Lucifer means ‘light-bearer’ in Latin, which probably refers to the metallic throat of the male. Why this particular species got that name, as opposed to the many other brilliantly-throated species, is unknown.
Answer: The short answer is they can’t. They require protein which they get from consuming insects, and their chicks, especially as they’re growing, need to be fed protein.
Hummingbirds are so small and fast that it can be easy to miss them catching small insects in flight, and a side effect of collecting spider webs for making nests means that females get protein from eating insects caught in the webs – and eating the spider architects of the webs as well.
Answer: Usually, when not breeding, territory defense for food depends on how much food is available. If there’s a lot, defending it doesn’t make sense because defense costs energy (think flying around chasing other hummingbirds), and there’s enough food for all.
If there’s only a little food, territory defense doesn’t make sense either because defending the flowers is more energy than you get from the few flowers around. Defense usually happens when there are intermediate levels of food available so that the territory holder has an advantage by keeping others away from their food.
As is true of most hummingbird species that occur outside of North America, there is a glaring lack of information on many aspects of this species’ biology, including migration, population size, and reproductive details.
Supplemental feeders are a great way to see hummingbirds, especially ones that are uncommon or only occur in a few places. But we need to determine whether providing extra food may change species’ abundance and competitive interactions or increases disease transmission or window collisions.
These issues mean that feeder placement and use should be done thoughtfully and for the benefit of the birds. I hope more people get to see these beautiful hummingbirds (remember your taxonomy: not to be confused with the Beautiful hummingbird, the sister species to Lucifer’s hummingbird!) and we will make an effort to figure out their biology and movements.
And, as someone who loves birds but lives in a colder region, I encourage those lucky enough to have diverse species of hummers as neighbors to truly appreciate these special birds.
- Kuban, J. F., Lawley, J., & Neill, R. L. (1983). The partitioning of flowering century plants by black-chinned and lucifer hummingbirds. The Southwestern Naturalist, 143-148.
- Ortiz‐Pulido, R., & Martínez‐García, V. (2006). A female Lucifer Hummingbird (Calothorax lucifer) with iridescent chin feathers. Journal of Field Ornithology, 77(1), 71-73.
- Russell, S. M., Russell, R. O., & Wethington, S. (1994). Lucifer hummingbirds banded in Southeastern Arizona. North American Bird Bander, July-Sept, 96-98.
- Scott, P. E. (2020). Lucifer Hummingbird (Calothorax lucifer), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.luchum.01
- Taylor, W. P., & Duvall, A. J. (1951). The Lucifer Hummingbird in the United States. The Condor, 53(4), 202-203.