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The Rufous Hummingbird

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By Brendan Lally from Delta, Canada (Female Rufous Hummingbird  Uploaded by PurpleHz) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons By Brendan Lally from Delta, Canada (Female Rufous Hummingbird Uploaded by PurpleHz) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Re-enacting the Battle of Britain, Every Single Afternoon! A Bird in Hand

Do you have your hummingbird feeder out? If not, it is unlikely that you’re going to fully enjoy one of the most assertive personalities in all of bird-dom. Bird guides often describe this species as “feisty.” That’s too kind.  I think obnoxious is a better word, but in a fun way. There are few things more entertaining than watching the aerial combat between these little rust-colored birds around the nectar feeder in the late afternoon. It’s like a cheesy reproduction of the Battle of Britain, complete with sound effects. 

The Rufous hummingbird is neither our largest nor our smallest hummingbird, but it is probably the most distinctively colored. Consequently, it is probably the easiest hummingbird to identify.  As its name indicates, it is rufous in color: that is, rust-colored. In the sunlight these birds can appear to be almost orange.  This is true for the male anyway, although the female will sport some rustiness on its flanks, belly, and tail. Otherwise, similar to other female hummingbird species, a covert green will be the dominant hue accompanied by a white throat. 

Another interesting feature of the Rufous that is easy to observe is the male’s courtship dance. These boys have no shame and are always ready to strut their stuff! If a male spots a female a nearby shrub or tree, he will fly high into the sky—maybe thirty feet—and then swoop down in a graceful dip complete with humming and twittering sound effects.  There are typically three or four consecutive dives, one immediately after the other. The male might also display directly in front of the female, buzzing slowly forward and backward, displaying the bright colors of his tail and gorget. 

And this point leads to another important field mark of the Rufous and any other species of hummingbird: the male’s gorget. The gorget is a showy patch of special feathers on the mature male’s throat. Normally the male holds these feathers close to his body and they will appear to be simply a large dark patch under his chin. But when he displays his gorget, especially if it is caught in the sunlight, this dark patch is transformed into an iridescent flash of metallic color.  Truly one of the most spectacular color displays in all of the animal kingdom and right in your backyard! Remarkable and unmistakable. Mr. Peacock has nothing on these little thumb-sized birds.  In the case of the Rufous, the displayed gorget is a bright, flashy red. Males normally display their gorget for two reasons: to court the ladies or to threaten other males. And if you’re paying attention, note that when the gorget is displayed the male also fans his tail to add color and size to his form. He will also make loud distinctive sounds.  But all of these actions combined might only last a few seconds.

Like all hummingbirds, the Rufous does not live on nectar alone. These little birds need protein and they find it in the form of gnats and spiders. Gnats they pick out of the air, spiders they pluck from the unlucky critters’ webs. They might also grab any bite-size bug that happens to be visiting the same blossom as them. 

Rufous are also famous travelers. For their size, no bird on earth will travel as far as a Rufous hummingbird. Not even tern species that travel from pole to pole. From their wintering grounds in Mexico, the Rufous might travel along the coast all the way up to Alaska. On their way back, they might return via the Rocky Mountains. When I lived in Southeast Alaska I was amazed how these little birds would literally swarm nectar feeders by the dozens. I have also seen them high in the mountains while backpacking, well before any wild blossoms had opened. They must have been surviving on insects and body fat. Alaskan Indian legend taught that these little birds flew to Alaska on the backs of migrating geese. Many people today in Alaska still hold this to be true. It’s logical, but what is even more remarkable is that these little birds make the flight unassisted. I get exhausted just thinking about it!

You want action? You want drama?  You want exotic animal displays? You want to see the Battle of Britain reenacted, ad nauseum? Then get those nectar feeders up right away. Quick, before these little birds decide that your backyard is not worth visiting. And that would be a shame. Imagine how boring our summers would be without the feisty little Rufous hummingbird. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

A Bird in Hand, Rufous Hummingbird, hummingbirds

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