Calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope)
This week’s crawly is the embodiment of “small but mighty.” Meet the calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope).
Calliope are the smallest birds in North America, and the smallest long-distance migratory birds in the world. They spend winters in Mexico, as far as 5,000 miles from their northernmost breeding range.
Calliopes only breed in the eight most northwestern states. Lucky for us, they can be found right here in our own backyards.
The calliope’s Oregon breeding range hugs the Cascades. Typically, calliopes nest between 4,000 and 11,000 feet, but they will come down to 600 feet, especially in riparian areas. They are outnumbered in our area by rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds, but over the years I’ve had a few pairs spend the late spring and early summer months in my yard.
Sometimes they’ll be mixed in with larger groups of rufous, taking advantage of free feeder sugar water for a day or two as they pass through during migration. Always good to spend time really watching your feeders when birds are on the move.
Calliopes are about three inches in length and weigh in at a feathery 2.8 grams (a ping pong ball weighs 2.7 grams!) Despite their diminutive size, males will chase much larger birds out of their territory in the summer months. Male calliopes have even been known to chase off red-tailed hawks. Small but mighty for sure.
In the winter months male calliopes are still small, but less mighty. When not fueled by spring/summer hormone rage, they defer to the feistier rufous. In winter calliopes even tend to hang out and feed closer to the ground than most hummingbirds to avoid conflict.
Good thing for us their summer fury makes them easier to spot. Males spend their days perched on exposed branches defending their turf and showing off for the female calliopes. Like rufous, male calliopes perform a spectacular mating display. They’ll zoom up 100 feet, then dive down, pulling up just above the ground. Rinse and repeat.
During the dive they make a sputtering buzz with their tail feathers and make a sharp, high-pitched zinging call. What lady calliope could resist?
Female calliopes look nearly identical to female rufous, but rufous have a white dot behind their eye and calliopes don’t. If you get to see the females fabulously fan out their tail feathers, you would see that the rufous females have rufous tail feathers and the calliopes’ are black.
When it comes to raising the kiddos, female calliopes do all the work, from nest building to incubating to feeding; it’s all on the moms. Females will have one or two broods per season, depending on weather and food availability. They generally have two eggs per brood.
Not only are calliopes pretty to look at, but they’re great to have around too. They drink nectar – even when pre-made sugar water is available – so they pollinate. They are also insectivores, so they’ll munch down on various small “pesty” type insects as well.
Fun fact: While hovering, calliopes’ metabolic rates increase to more than 16 times resting level, so they’ll need to drink a lot of nectar and sugar water and eat a lot of arthropods to fuel them through spring and summer.