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Calliope Hummingbird

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The wee-est of the wee

I am glad that I live in a place so rich in hummingbirds. These are truly exciting birds to watch, with their small size combined with the unique ability to fly like little helicopters. Their boldness is appreciated, which makes them accessible in any backyard. And their intolerance for each other at the feeder makes for game little aerial dogfights every evening. But it is also easy to take these little rascals for granted because they are so easy to attract. All one has to do is place a nectar feeder up high and the action soon begins. Indeed, they are so lusty in their consumption of sugar water that they actually can require a bit of maintenance. Who would think that such little critters could eat so much?

The Calliope hummingbird is the smallest bird you’ll find setting up home in our region; it is the also the smallest breeding bird in the United States and Canada. And small they are: they weigh about the same as a U.S. penny. Think about that for a moment. That, my friends, is tiny! 

Thus, it is hard to realize that this teeny winged wonder is also the smallest long-distance migration bird species in the world. The Calliope winters in central Mexico and then heads up the Pacific Coast in the spring. After reaching its breeding grounds in the mountain regions of the Pacific Northwest and the central Rocky Mountains, the birds mate and raise their broods. Afterwards, and while still summer, they head east and then south along the ridges of the Rocky Mountains to take advantage of late-season flowering plant species. They continue south back down into central Mexico, where they again spend the off season. Effectively, these are high-altitude birds that favor mountain regions.  

I often note in my bird columns that it is difficult to gauge the relative sizes of various species of birds for identification purposes. That is why such measures as “crow-sized” or “robin-sized” are used. But what about the Calliope hummingbird; what should it be compared to? How about a large moth?! These fellows are so small that they intrude on the insects for relative size! Yes, the very fact that the Calliope hummingbird is so small can help in identifying it. They also appear to be almost tailless when perching. Otherwise, their coloration of greens above and white below are not that dissimilar to other familiar species of hummingbirds. The exception to this is the gorget of the male. The gorget is the shield of bright, often iridescent, colors that male hummingbirds sport on their chins. In the case of the Calliope, the gorget is more a collection of bright magenta strands on a white background than a solid, cohesive whole. And these strands of feathers in the gorget often extend out onto the chest and shoulders of the bird like an unruly beard. Like other hummingbird species, the male Calliope uses his gorget to attract females and to threaten other males.  

The Calliope is obviously a nectar feeder, but even hummingbirds cannot live on sugar alone. They are also insectivores, catching their prey on the wing. They also visit the sap holes of sap suckers for a sweet snack. 

While they are among the earliest hummingbird species to reach our area in the spring, they are also among the first to leave.  Specifically the males: the first to arrive and the first to leave. Typical with male hummingbirds in general, only the female Calliope raises the brood. But all of these birds leave the breeding grounds while still summer to ensure keeping up with their lifeline of mountain flowers on their trek back to Mexico. 

Calliopes are beautiful birds and I sure enjoy them. I am also glad that their boldness is disproportionate to their size, because they sure to bring a certain amount of “zing” to one’s backyard. We are all the richer for it. Keep your eyes peeled and your head ducked. 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:

birding, A Bird in Hand, calliope hummingbird, hummingbird

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