The recent spring snowstorm in the Front Range reminded me of a photo I took a few years back, in the aftermath of a similar storm. This is a female broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), with her feathers puffed out to keep warm – perhaps one of the smallest down coats ever! They are frequent summertime visitors to the Front Range, arriving around April. You’ll probably hear them rather than see more than a glimpse of them – the male’s wings beat so fast that they produce a distinctive trilling sound. Their main food source is nectar from flowers, and small insects that they catch while flying. If you hear them, look for them moving from flower to flower. If you are wearing red or pink clothing, curious hummingbirds may buzz by you, no doubt wondering where your nectar is!
Broad-tailed hummingbirds are tiny, just four inches from beak to tail. The males are iridescent green with a white chest and a black-to-red throat patch. The females are similar, but less colorful and without the throat patch. Their long, narrow beaks are perfect for getting nectar from flowers, and they are important pollinators.
Everything about hummingbirds is fast-paced, from their wings to a heart rate above 1,200 beats per minute, to their quick and calculated movements. Hummingbirds are also the only bird species able to fly backwards, which makes flower-to-flower travel efficient. Broad-tailed hummingbirds nest in the mountains throughout the summer, but spend the winter far to the south, in Mexico. They engage in philopatry – they return to the same nesting site year after year, sometimes building a new nest in the remains of the previous year’s nest.
Of all the states, Colorado hosts the largest spring and summer population of broad-tailed hummingbirds. If you see – or rather, hear – a hummingbird in the spring around here, it is probably a broad-tailed. One other species, the black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), also arrives around April/May but they are nowhere near as numerous. The tiny calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) and the brutish rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) arrive in the summer. In all, 11 species of hummingbird have been reported in Colorado, though only half or so breed here.