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Bent Life History of the Calliope Hummingbird

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Calliope Hummingbird - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



This tiny mite is the smallest member of the group containing the smallest North American birds. Grinnell and Storer (1924) state that "its average weight is only about 3 grams (one-tenth of an ounce) which is about half that of an Anna Hummingbird, or of a kinglet or bush-tit." The length of the male is about 2 ¾ inches and that of the female is less than 3 inches. But it is a hardy little midget and a long-distance traveler, migrating from northern British Columbia to Mexico City; it spends its summers in the Canadian zones at high altitudes in the mountains and at lower levels farther north.

Its generic name was well chosen, Stellula, little star, for the long, narrow, metallic purple feathers rise and spread, under excitement, above the snow-white background of the gorget, like a scintillating star. The choice of the specific name, calliope, was not so fortunate; Calliope was the muse of eloquence, and this is a very silent bird.

At least throughout the southern portion of its breeding range, and to some extent farther north, the calliope hummingbird is essentially a mountain species, though it breeds in the lower valleys and near sea level in some of the more northern portions of its range. Dawson (1923) says that in California:

It is essentially a mountain-loving species, and is, so far as we have been able to prove, the only breeding Hummer of the higher Sierran slopes. There is a 3000 foot record, by Stephens, of a nest in the San Bernardinos; but 4000 Is the usual minimum, and 8000 a better average. In the Canadian zone, therefore, the bird knows no restrictions, save that it does not favor the densely timbered sections. In the Sierras it nests nearly up to timber line, 10,000 to 11,500 feet, and follows the advancing season to the limit of flowers. * * * A bit of heather on a northern peak, where we camped at an elevation of 8,000 feet, yielded thirty-two species of plants In conspicuous bloom within a stone's throw of the breakfast table.

Elsewhere (Dawson and Bowles, 1909) he says: "We have found it commonly in the northern and eastern portions of Washington at much lower altitudes, and have taken its nest in the Burning Gorge of the Columbia at an altitude of only six hundred feet."

James B. Dixon writes to me: "In the San Bernardino country it was a rare breeder at elevations from 6,000 to 8,500 feet above sea level, and there it nested along the stream beds where water ran all summer. In the Mono Basin they were found along running streams, generally in the aspen thickets, but sometimes out in the open forests high on the mountain sides and some distance from running water; they were much more common, however, in the aspen groves."

Ralph Hoffmann (1927) writes: "The flowering shrubs and vines about dwellings attract nearly all the different hummingbirds of the coast. One species, however, still keeps to the natural gardens on mountain slopes, where Indian paint-brush, mountain heather and columbine splotch the springy slopes with red, or wild currant forms extensive thickets. Here the little Calliope Hummer, the smallest and most delicately adorned of them all, flashes the lavender streaks on its gorget as it chases off some rival or pursues a female."

J. A. Munro (1919) says that in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, "a birch and maple draw is the favorite home of Stellula calliope, and one can often see six or eight, buzzing around a birch tree, which a Red-naped Sapsucker has girdled." Winton Weydemeyer (1927), writing of its haunts in northwestern Montana, where it is a common breeder, says:

In Lincoln County the Calliope Hummingbird (Stellula calliope) nests along streams throughout most of the Canadian zone and downward into the upper borders of the Transition zone. During the nesting season and late summer it also frequents open mountains, ranging into the Hudsonian zone, and during May and August is commonly seen in the breeding areas of lower Transition zone species. Tree associations evidently have greater influence on its range than does elevation. In the eastern part of the country I have found the species to be common during the nesting season at 7,000 feet, although I have never chanced actually to see a nest above 4,800 feet. In the Kootenai Valley, near Libby, I have found it nesting abundantly at an elevation of less than 2,100 feet, and I have no doubt that it breeds below 1,900 feet a few miles distant, in the lower end of the valley, the only place in Montana where so low an elevation occurs.

Courtship: The courtship performances of the hummingbirds all follow the same general pattern, with only slight variations, and this species is no exception to the rule. Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1030) describe it very well as follows:

An exhibition of courting flight that seemed fairly typical for this species was observed on May 16, 1924. A female was down in a blossoming currant (Ribes cereum) bush. A male started towering from her vicinity, slowly at first and with an audible buzz, then faster until he reached a height of fully twenty-two meters. Then he shot down In a broadly U-shaped course, passing the bush closely (barely missing it) and ascended to an equal height on the opposite tip of the "U." At the moment of passing the bush, within which the female was perched, he gave out a droll, flatted sound bzt -- short, not loud, like a bee held down. After making three complete sky-dives, the male, on coming down the last time, perched six meters away at the tip of a stem of budding service-berry hush. The female began at once to feed at the currant flowers within the abundantly white-flowering bush.

The following variation in the antics was observed by L. E. Wyman (1920):

On one occasion an angry buzzing, almost terrifying in volume, resolved itself into a pair of these birds holding to each other's beaks and revolving like a horizontal pinwheel, less thou four feet from my eyes. Around they went, a half-dozen times, then parted, the female perching and preening on a twig of the oak-scrub just beyond arm's reach, with the male two feet farther away and giving vent at three-second intervals to an explosive metallic tzing. This was, of course, made with the wings, but the bird was sufficiently screened so that I could not see it clearly.

On another occasion a female sat preening on a horizontal dead weed, when a male shot up the hill-side close to the ground, passed the female, mounted about twenty-five feet and darted down again in a long, narrow, vertical ellipse that flattened where it touched the hill-side. As he passed the female she fluttered and swung head downward on her perch. The male alighted above her, with vibrating wings, and coition took place in this position.

Nesting: Major Bendire (1895) gives an interesting account of the nesting of the calliope hummingbird near Fort Klamath, Oreg., where he said that this species outnumbered the common rufous hummingbird about three to one. His first nest was found by the actions of the bird; he writes:

I had taken quite a long walk along the banks of Fort Creek on June 10, and, the day being a hot one, sat down with my hack resting against the trunk of a bushy black pine whose lower limbs had been killed by fire; while resting thus one of these Hummers buzzed repeatedly about my head for a few seconds at a time, and then rose perpendicularly in the air, only to repeat the performance again. I had no idea then that this species nested in pines, but in order to give me an opportunity to watch its performance better I moved out from under the tree, and a few minutes later saw the bird settle on what I at first supposed to be an old clump of pine cones. On looking closer, however, I noticed its nest, which was ingeniously saddled on two small cones, and its outward appearance resembled a cone very closely. * * * Knowing now where to look for them, I had no further difficulty in finding their nests, and all of those observed by me were built in exactly similar situations. * * * They were usually placed on or against a dry cone on small dead limbs of Finns con torte, from S to 15 feet from the ground, and on account of the brittle nature of these limbs they were rather hard to secure. The nests, while outwardly not as handsome as those of the majority of our Hummers, are nevertheless marvels of ingenuity, all those I have seen mimicking a small dead pine cone so perfectly as to almost defy detection unless one sees the bird fly on or off the nest The majority found were saddled on one or two such cones, or on a small limb and resting against the sides of a cone. The outer walls are composed of bits of hark and small shreds of cone, and the inner cup is softly lined with willow down. An average nest measures about 11,4 inches in outer diameter by the same in depth: the inner cup being three-quarters of an inch in width by one-half inch in depth. The nests were generally so placed that the contents wore protected by larger limbs or green boughs above.

He says of another nest: "This is composed interiorly of fine moss and willow down, and the outer walls are decorated with tiny shreds of bark, fine flakes of wood, and flakes of whitewash, fastened securely with cobwebs; it was placed on a knot in a rope hanging from the roof of a woodshed and within 5 feet of an occupied dwelling house. The materials out of which the nest is composed closely assimilate the rope and knot on which it is placed."

It seems to be the prevailing custom of this hummingbird to build its nest on a small branch or twig directly under a larger branch, or under a canopy of foliage, which serves to protect or conceal the nest from overhead; many observers have noticed this, and numerous photographs illustrate this type of location. This hummer has also developed to a high degree its skill in so placing its nest and so artfully camouflaging it that it fades into the picture as a natural part of its environment. James B. Dixon says in his notes that in the shaded portions of the aspen groves there are numerous dead, black or gray mistletoe knots, about the size of hummingbirds' nests, and the birds seem to realize the value of the protection thus offered; most of the nests that he found there were built either upon one of these knots or in such a position that the nest would look exactly like one of them; and he had difficulty in recognizing a nest until he could see a bird alight upon it.

Nine nests that Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1908) recorded in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California "varied in height above the ground from twenty-two inches (measured) to seventy feet (estimated) ; I should judge the average height to have been about thirty-five feet, as the majority were above that height. The nests were all in cañons, though none were directly over or very near the water, as with some other species of hummingbirds. One was located in an alder, two in silver firs, and six, in yellow and Jeffrey pines."

The first nest mentioned above, as 22 inches above the ground, is in the Thayer collection in Cambridge; it was near the end of a drooping bough of a young silver fir growing on a canyon side and only 15 inches from the face of a huge overhanging boulder; its general appearance is dark gray, being made of various gray and brown fibers, bark scales, and bits of inner bark; the bottom of the cavity only is lined with grayish-white down; it measures 1½ by 1¾ inches in outside diameter and 11/8 inches by seven-eighths of an inch in inner diameter; it is only seven-eighths of an inch high outside and five-eighths of an inch deep inside.

Mr. Weydemeyer (1927) says of its nesting habits in northwestern Montana:

The nest of this Hummingbird Is placed in a coniferous tree. Within this limit, the choice of an Individual tree appears to depend more upon the location than upon the species. In the higher elevations of Lincoln County, nests are placed in alpine firs. Along the streams of the Transition zone, the trees most commonly used are the Engelmann spruce, western hemlock, and arborvitae. I have found one nest In a Douglas fir, but have seen none in pines. Near Libby I have observed nests in three species of trees within a few yards of each other along a stream. Evidently, to suit the requirements of the birds, the tree must be a conifer standing on the hank of a creek, or beside a road or other opening in the forest, with one of its lowermost branches swinging free from nil other foliage and commanding a clear view In practically all directions.

The word "lowermost" is used with a purpose. All the nests of this species that I have seen have been placed on the lowermost living branch on its side of the tree. This habit determines the height of the nest above the ground or water. In the region considered here the distance generally ranges from four to ten feet. * * *

But little variation occurs in the general types of materials used in constructing the nests. In comparative bulk the average nest is composed approximately as follows: plant down, 60 per cent; tree lichens, 20 per cent; ground and rock mosses, 10 per cent; tree mosses, 5 per cent; spider webs and fibers of insect cocoons, 1 per cent; miscellaneous material, 4 per cent.

The "shell" of the nest is formed principally of ground and rock mosses mixed with more or less plant down, strongly bound together with cocoon fibers, especially at the rim. Many species of moss are utilized, but generally only one kind is used in an individual nest. In many cases black fibrous tree moss also is used. This part of the nest contains the "miscellaneous material." In the fourteen nests examined this included conifer needles, grass, aspen hark, rotted wood, feathers (from the birds themselves), small leaves, and pieces of spider and Insect skeletons (Diptera, Coleoptera, and Hymenoptera).

The exterior of this framework is thickly covered with gray or greenish lichens of the kind occurring on the tree in which the nest is placed. The pieces are hound to the moss by shreds of insect webs and cocoons, or by fibrous tree moss. The main body of the nest, within the sustaining framework, is composed of a thick, soft layer of various kinds of plant down, firmly compacted to form the interior cup. This down retains its shape without being bound with any other material.

Second year additions to a nest are composed mainly of down. Often the only added material is a thick layer of down in the bottom of the cup, and a thinner one on its sides. This method of addition decreases the depth of the cup about a quarter of an inch. In other cases, the rim of the nest is heightened also. If this is done, a new layer of lichen is added to the outside of the nest, making it impossible to determine, from the appearance of the exterior, how many years the nest has been used.

The foregoing paragraph indicates the methods employed by hummingbirds in repairing, or adding to, a last year's nest, a common practice among some species. But often, with this and other species, an entirely new nest is attached to or built upon the remains of a last year's nest; in this case the old nest can be easily recognized by its faded appearance. A series of two, three, or even four such nests, perhaps built during successive seasons, may occasionally be seen. Ridgway (1892, pl. 1) shows a cut of a 4-story nest of a calliope hummingbird.

Eggs: The calliope hummingbird lays the usual set of two eggs. These are like other hummingbirds' eggs, pure white, without gloss, and varying in shape from oval to elliptical-oval. The measurements of 45 eggs average 12.1 by 8.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 13.0 by 9.6 and 10.7 by 7.4 millimeters.

Plumages: No information seems to be available about the development of the juvenal plumage, or about the early nest life of the young calliope hummingbird. In the full juvenal plumage, just after leaving the nest, the young male is practically indistinguishable from the adult female, as it still has the throat more or less streaked or spotted with bronzy brownish or dusky and with no sign of any purple in the gorget; I have seen birds in this plumage up to the first of July; some, but not all, young males have rather more rufous in the tail than the adult female has. Specimens taken in August begin to show more or fewer metallic-purple feathers in the gorget; slight advance toward maturity seems to continue during fall and winter, until the prenuptial molt, late in winter or early in spring, produces the fully adult plumage. The young female is like the adult female, but the upper parts are more bronzy and the feathers are indistinctly margined with dull brownish.

Food: The calliope, like other hummingbirds, feeds on nectar from flowers and on the minute insects and small spiders that frequent the flowers. The sweet nectar in the flowers undoubtedly attracted the insects, but whether it was the nectar or the insects that first attracted the hummingbird is an open question; the insects may have been the original objects of their search, and the nectar developed a taste for sweets. Any brightly colored flowers are likely to attract these birds, but they seem to show a preference for red flowers, such as the scarlet paintbrush and the red columbine. The yellow flowers of Mimulus implexus also furnish a food supply for them. And Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) write: "In early May in the vicinity of Mineral this species appeared to have just one plant, a species of lousewort (Pedicularis sernibarbata), which it frequented. The flowers grew on long spikes from leaf rosettes under snow-brush. The hummers had to fly down among closest twiggage of the bushes to get at these flowers. Often they alighted almost on the ground to get at the horizontal tubes. By May 28 they were very active in a tract of blossoming manzanita at 6000 feet, even among snow banks. A female was seen at a snow-plant (Sarcodes) where these plants were first coming up, on June 26, beneath red firs."

The calliope hummingbird also hawks for insects on the wing, much after the manner of flycatchers; probably any small insect that becomes available is acceptable, but small species of Diptera, Hymenoptera, or Coleoptera seem to be most often taken. Milton P. Skinner tells me that he has seen one perched on a willow, turning its head and upper body from side to side with an- almost clocklike motion, while watching for insects. Others have noticed its sallies into the air for passing insects, which its keen eyes have detected.

Behavior: Several observers have written of the territorial relations of this hummingbird and of its aggressiveness in defending its nesting territory and it's foraging range. Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) write:

On a six-acre plot of ground where the activities of individual birds were observed closely through several nesting seasons four separate males kept distinct "stands" each for itself. As nearly as could be determined all the females that were seen on this plot were visitors whose nests were off in a belt of lodgepole pines on Battle Creek Meadows. Females came onto the plot to forage about flowers (Castilleia) that were plentiful there, and were then shown attention by the males.

The stand of one male was on a telephone wire directly above quantities of flowers to which a female frequently came. Another male divided his time among the growing tips of three closely adjacent young yellow pines slightly overtopping a sea of snow-brush. Another perched chiefly on one of the highest twigs of a service-berry thicket in an opening among firs. One male was established on the tallest, scrub black oak tip, driving away from the vicinity any approaching forager.

Grinnell and Storer (1924) write:

The males of all our hummingbirds are accustomed to harass birds many times their own size. A Calliope at Mono Meadow was seen to put a Wright Flycatcher to rout, the latter seeking seclusion in a ceanothus thicket. In Yosemite Valley another was seen driving at a Western Robin that was on the ground. The hummer would mount as much as 30 feet into the air and then dash down at the robin. Even Red-tailed Hawks are sometimes "attacked" by these pugnacious midgets. * * *
Like Other hummingbirds the Calliope is often attracted by red objects. Whether this is a voluntary action based on esthetic appeal, or a reflex based en food-getting instinct, is problematic. At Chinquapin, on June 14. a female of this species darted into the front of our open tent and poised with seeming interest before a red-labeled baking powder can on the table. Then the bird went out into the sunshine, but it returned again twice before finally going away. Two of our three August records of this species were of individuals which were attracted in the same manner, the object being a red handkerchief in one case, and a sweater of the same color in the other.

Apparently the calliope is not always so aggressive or so pugnacious as are some other hummingbirds, for Henshaw (1886) says that it is "much less obtrusive, and in the contests of its larger neighbors it takes no part. When assailed, as it promptly is by the other kinds, it at once darts away to another spot where it can feed without molestation. It appears to be timid in every way, so much so that it is not an easy bird to collect."

Mr. Wyman (1920) says: "Ordinarily the Black-chins, of which a few haunted the same locality, would drive the Calliopes unmercifully. Once, however, a male Calliope shot close beside me up the hillside, just grazing the grass-tips, driving at a Black-chin that was quietly feeding. Within two feet of the latter he mounted vertically about thirty feet, then dropped like a plummet on the feeding bird, and both flashed down the hill-side with Calliope doing the chasing."

Aretas A. Saunders (1915) observed a bird of this species that "was very belligerent in protecting her home from all birds and other animals that approached too closely. A pine squirrel had ventured into the tree and the mother hummer chased it away immediately, following it. a long way through the trees and darting at it first from one side and then from the other. The nest contained half-grown young when first found."

Field marks: The small size of the calliope hummingbird will help to distinguish it from others, when the opportunity for comparison is favorable. The male is, of course, easy to recognize by the long, spreading, metallic-purple feathers against the snow-white background of its gorget. Aside from its small size, the female can be distinguished from the three species with which it is most likely to be associated by the amount of rufous in the tail; in the female calliope all but the central pair of rectrices have some rufous at the base; in the rufous female all the rectrices are more or less basally rufous; in the female broad-tailed only the three outer feathers are so marked; and in the female black-chinned there is no rufous in the tail.

Fall: The males start on the southward migration rather early in the summer, or at least desert the females and move away from the breeding grounds. The females and young follow later. In the Yosemite region Grinnell and Storer (1924) saw no males after the end of June. Henshaw (1886); referring to New Mexico, says: "An utterly unaccountable fact noticed in connection with this species was the apparent rarity of females. Up to August 10 I had seen perhaps half a dozen, though constantly on the watch for them, while I had certainly seen not less than ten times that number of males. Subsequently to that date I saw a few more, but nothing like the number of males. By September the young were numerous in certain localities, notably in a large sunflower patch."

Of the migration in the Huachuca Mountains, Arizona, Harry S. Swarth (1904) writes: "After the summer rains the mountains present an exceedingly inviting appearance, particularly so in the higher parts, along the ridges and on various pine covered 'flats,' where, with the green grass, a multitude of brilliantly colored wild flowers springs up, often waist high, and in many places in solid banks of bright colors. In such places, in the late summer of 1902, I found the Calliope Hummingbird quite abundant, feeding close to the ground, and when alighting usually choosing a low bush. * * * The first one was shot August 14, and from then up to the time we left the mountains, September 5, they remained abundant in certain localities; none being seen below 9000 feet."


Range: Western North America and Mexico.

Breeding range: The breeding range of the calliope hummingbird extents north to southern British Columbia (150-mile House, Okanagan Landing, and Deer Park); and southwestern Alberta (Banff). East to southwestern Alberta (Banff) ; Montana (Fortine, Poison, rarely Sheep Creek, and Red Lodge); northwestern Wyoming (Yellowstone National Park); Utah (Escalante Mountains) ; and northern Baja California (Vallecitos). South to northern Baja California (Vallecitos); and southern California (Grant Creek, Mount Waterman and Mount Pinos). West to western California (Mount Pinos, Glenbrook, Battle Creek, and Steward Springs); Oregon (Gold Hill, Fort Klamath, and Weston); Washington (Yakima, Bumping Lake, and Lake Chelan); and British Columbia (probably Chilliwack and 150-mile House).

Winter range: During the winter season the species appears to be concentrated in the southern Mexican States of Michoacan (Lake Patzcuaro); Mexico (Ajusco); and Guerrero (Taxco and Amula).

Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Californla: Yosemite Valley, March 2; Azusa, March 6; Whittier, March 20; Grass Valley, April 23. Oregon: Weston, May 3; Anthony, May 6; Fort Klamath, May 16. Washington: Grays Harbor, April 22; Tacoma, May 10; Pullman, May 12. British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, April 25; Burrard Inlet, May 7. Arizona: Superstition Mountain, March 22; Santa Catalina Mountains, April 14. Idaho: Coeur d'Alene, May 20. Montana: Missoula, May 9; Fortine, May 11; Bozeman, May 25.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Montana: Corvallis, September 7; Fortine, September 14. Idaho: Priest River, August 24. New Mexico: Albuquerque, September 16. Arizona: Fort Verde, August 27; Apache, August 28; San Bernardino Ranch, September 11. British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, August 25. Washington: Ahtanum, August 12; Mount Adams, August 14. Nevada: East Humboldt Mountains, September 7. Californla: Yosemite Valley, September 4; Santa Barbara, September 11; San Bernardino Mountains, September 16.

Casual records: A specimen was taken at El Paso, Tex., in 1851. Colorado has several records, as follows: One was collected at Breckenridge on June 30, 1882; one was found dead in Cheyenne Canyon, near Colorado Springs, on July 25, 1897; specimens also were reported from this general vicinity on July 18, 1915, and in August 1915; while several were seen on August 27, 1904, at Antonito. One was found dead near Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, on August 22, 1935. The species has been reported as occasional at Wrangell, Alaska, but the evidence is not considered satisfactory.

Egg dates: California: 46 records, May 27 to July 30; 23 records, June 10 to 28, indicating the height of the season.

Utah: 7 records, July 3 to 23.