Rufous Hummingbird

Bird of the Month: Rufous Hummingbird

By Andy McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Rufous Hummingbird)

PC: Mick Thompson (Rufous Hummingbird)

Scientific Name: Selasphorus rufus

Length 3.75"

Wingspan: 4.5"

Weight: 0.12 oz (3.4 g)

AOU Band code RUHU

The Rufous Hummingbird is one of our beloved Northwest breeding birds which is awaited by birders as a sure sign of Spring. Its breeding area includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Western Montana, British Columbia, and south-central Alaska. It arrives in March after a flight of over 1,500 miles from Western and Southern Mexico where it winters in pine-oak forests such as those in the Sierra Manantian Biosphere Reserve in Jalisco. Spring migration follows a coastal route with sightings in the lowlands common until summer. Starting in late July fall migration shifts inland along the Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges where the birds can fuel up on mountain meadow flowers. For some fall migration can veer eastward. There have been an increasing number of sightings along the southeast coast of the U.S. and vagrants have been seen in the northeast during winter.

The Rufous is one of three North American hummingbirds in the genus Selasphorus, to bear a flame, from the Greek selas, brightness or flame and phoros, bearing. The other two are the Broad-tailed and Allen’s Hummingbirds, neither of which is seen in Washington. Rufous is based on the scientific name, rufus, Latin for red or tawny (Holloway). 

The male Rufous Hummingbird has a glittering flame orange throat gorget. Its forehead is green and it has a white band below the gorget. The rest of the bird including its back, tail and belly is rufous. The female is more muted and much greener overall with a rufous wash along the sides and rufous in the center portion of the tail. Males can be identified by their call note tzee and a longer tzee-chupppity-chup. Their wings also produce a rattle as they brake at the bottom of their display dives.

The males can be particularly pugnacious. They will battle other males of its own and other species for territory and actively defend a stand of flowers where it has been feeding. It will also attempt to claim a home feeder as its own. They are equally aggressive in defending their breeding territory which favors forest clearings and edges along streams. They prefer brushy second-growth areas. The female builds a compact cup nest usually in the lower branches of a conifer and deposits two eggs. Incubation lasts only a little more than two weeks with first flight three weeks after hatching.

There is some debate over the status of the Rufous Hummingbird with some saying they have declined in population by 55% since 1966 (Wells). Others question whether breeding bird surveys are effective in counting these birds because of their remote breeding behavior (Healy and Calder). Wells believes that clearing of vegetation and burning of slash after tree harvesting combined with suppression of second-growth vegetation following planting of monoculture trees for later harvest have negatively affected habitat. Habitat loss on the wintering grounds presents another threat. The Rufous Hummingbird along with being an entertaining Northwest bird has great value as a natural pollinator.