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Rufous Hummingbird

Named after their plumage, these hummingbirds are known for their large range.

With widely separated breeding and wintering ranges, all Rufous Hummingbirds are migratory. The timing of their spring migration coincides with flowering plants blooming as spring advances. Males Rufous Hummingbirds typically move north in the spring before females.

The territory of a male Rufous Hummingbird usually has a rich food supply at its center, and is aggressively defended. Several styles of display flights are used to attract a female. There are several records of Rufous Hummingbirds living to age seven, and one record of a bird nearly nine years old.

Rufous Hummingbird


Description of the Rufous Hummingbird



The Rufous Hummingbird is a medium size hummingbird with mostly rufous upperparts, and considerable rufous at the base of the outer tail feathers.

Males have a red gorget, rufous on the sides of the head, the belly, and much of the upperparts.  Rarely has greenish back.  Length: 4 in.  Wingspan: 4 in.


Females have spotted cheeks, some red feathers on the throat, a pale orange line above the eye, and buffy to rufous flanks.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles resemble adult females.


Rufous Hummingbirds inhabit forest clearings and meadows.

Rufous Hummingbird

Male. Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Rufous Hummingbirds eat nectar.


Rufous Hummingbirds forage by hovering to take nectar from flowers.


Rufous Hummingbirds breed from the northwestern U.S. to southeastern Alaska. They winter primarily in Mexico. The population appears to be declining.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Rufous Hummingbird.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

The breeding range of the Rufous Hummingbird extends to latitudes farther north than any other hummingbird in the world.

In recent decades, more and more Rufous Hummingbirds are being seen in fall and winter along the Gulf Coast of the U.S.


The commonly heard call consists of a high chip. A buzz followed by three-syllable phrases is given when one bird is chasing another.


Attract with flowering plants and hummingbird feeders.


Similar Species

  • Calliope Hummingbirds have thinner bills and shorter tails. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds have less rufous in the tail, and have longer tails. Rufous with much more rufous/orange coloration.Allen’s Hummingbird
    Allen’s Hummingbird males often have less extensive rufous on the upperparts, usually with green back. Allen’s Hummingbirds have narrower outer tail feathers. Females and juveniles of Allen’s and Rufous very difficult to separate in the field.


The Rufous Hummingbird’s nest consists of a cup of mosses, plant fibers, and spider webs, the outside covered with lichens, and is placed in a tree, shrub, or vine.

Number: Usually lay 2 eggs.
Color: White.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 15-17 days, and begin to fly in about another 3 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


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



Although I have always considered Costa’s hummingbird to be the most beautiful of our North American hummingbirds, on account of the charming colors reflected in its crown and gorget, it must yield the palm for brilliancy to the rufous hummingbird and its near relative, Allen’s. The brilliant scarlet of the rufous hummer’s gorget, which often glows like burnished gold, puts it in the front rank as a gleaming gem, a feathered ball of fire. It is not only fiery in appearance, but it has a fiery temper and makes things lively for any rivals near its feeding stations or its nest.

It ranges farther north than any of our other hummingbirds, breeding from about latitude 61° N. in Alaska and southern Yukon southward to Oregon and southwestern Montana. It is exceedingly abundant from the Rocky Mountains westward on its migrations to and from its winter home in southern Mexico. And it may yet be found breeding at high elevations in some of the mountain ranges south of its present known breeding range. Henshaw (1886) was perhaps mistaken in assuming that this hummer was breeding in the region of the upper Pecos River in New Mexico, though be states that it was abundant at altitudes of from 8,000 to 9,000 feet “during the entire summer”: but he found only one nest, “and this after it was deserted.” Mrs. Bailey (1928) says: “There seems to be no known instance of the Rufous Hummingbird nesting in Arizona, Colorado, or New Mexico, though the species bas been included in the breeding lists of these States for the last thirty years.” Mr. Ridgway (1911) includes these States, as well as some mountains in California, in the breeding range. The fact that early migrants appear in these regions in July may have led to the assumption that the species was breeding in the vicinity, but no occupied nest seems to have been reported.

Spring: The rufous hummingbird apparently makes its northward migration in spring mainly to the westward of the Rocky Mountains; according to Mrs. Bailey (1928) “it is unknown in spring in both New Mexico and Colorado”; and Mr. Swarth (1904) did not see it in the Huachuca Mountains at any time in the spring and considers it of comparatively rare occurrence in Arizona at this season. In southern California, and probably throughout the State, it is a very common spring migrant, especially through the valleys and foothills of the Pacific slope. Referring to Los Angeles County, Robert S. Woods (1927b) says that, after the arrival of Anna’s hummingbird, “the Rufous Hummingbird is the next of the migrants to appear, usually arriving early in March and leaving late in April. During part of this time it is the commonest species. My earliest record for the Rufous is February 17 (1926) and the latest for the spring migration May 1 (1924).”

Leslie L. Haskin writes to me from Oregon: “In the Willamette Valley the rufous hummingbird is the first of the family to arrive. It appears normally about the first of March, although an occasional earlier individual may often be seen. The males precede the females by a considerable time. My observation is that, while the males are very abundant throughout March, few females will be seen before the last week of that month. The main body of the rufous hummingbird migration arrives just as the crimson-flowered currant (Ribes sanguineum) is bursting into bloom, and of the flowers of this shrub the hummingbirds are especially fond. At that time every bush is alive with the darting hummers, and it is one of the most brilliant bird and flower spectacles of the West. The glittering, coppery sheen of the birds and the crimson flowers, borne in profuse drooping panicles, make a brilliant combination.”

Courtship: A very good account of this bird’s courtship is given by G. D. Sprot (1927) as follows:

In the displays I have witnessed, which have been many, a careful survey of the ground beneath the performer invariably revealed the female sitting motionless on some twig of the low-growing underbrush, and as the aerial acrobat reached the limit of his upward flight she was seen to turn her head slightly and glance admiringly aloft. The male ascended usually with his back towards his mate, then turning, faced her, and with gorget fully expanded descended swiftly until within an inch or two of her, when spreading both wings and tail he checked himself and soared aloft again to repeat the performance, or else settled on some near-by bush. As be so checked his flight the whining note was produced, undoubtedly by the rush of air through the outspread feathers.

On two occasions, in May, 1925, and May, 1926, I witnessed in connection with the above performance what I believe to he the actual mating of the birds. After one or two towering flights by the male, the female rose from her perch and the male immediately closed with her. Then over a distance of some ten or twelve feet, and horizontally, they swung together backwards and forwards through the air, just as one often sees insects so doing. The regular swinging hum of the wings is hard to describe but is just what one might expect. So fast is this swinging flight, and so close was I, not over four or five feet away in one instance, that I was totally unable to see the birds except as a blurred streak of color. As the flight ceased I saw them separate, and in one instance the female was seen to fall to the ground, but later to regain her perch, while the male continued his towering flights.

Mr. Haskin says in his notes: “Besides the diving act it has another modified performance. In this act the male ‘teeters’ in the air above the female who is hidden in the grass below. It is like the dive, but the arc is much shorter and flatter: a shallow curve of only 6 or S inches. The male in this stunt shoots forward with the tail spread and much elevated, followed by a quick backward dart, tail lowered, and twittering and buzzing to his utmost. This is repeated again and again.

Nesting: A. Dawes DuBois has sent me some very elaborate notes on the nesting habits and home life of the rufous hummingbird in the vicinity of Belton, Mont., subsequently published by him (1938). The nest that he studied “was five feet from the ground, in a small balsam fir, among the branches of a close-standing birch. It was situated at the bottom of the slope of a foothill. The foothills were wooded chiefly with larch, spruce, hemlock, fir and cedar, and on this particular slope was a growth of birch. It was constructed of soft cottony, plant materials felted together and thickly covered exteriorly with lichens held in place by cob-webs.” He gives the dimensions of the nest as diameter at the rim 1 inch, diameter at the bulge 17/8, inside depth 7/8, and outside depth 1¼ inches.

D. E. Brown has sent me the following notes: “The rufous hummingbird returns to western Washington by the middle of March and commences nest building a month later. They colonize to a certain extent in favorable localities, and I have seen as many as 10 nests in a small patch of gorse. The nest is near the ground as a rule, but sometimes it is placed higher up in either conifers or deciduous trees. The drooping branches of conifers are favorite sites, the nest often being placed on the lowest branch; and a branch that has a sharp downward bend is so well liked that the bird often returns to the same place the next year, and even the third year. A nest built on such a branch is fastened to it from the bottom to the very top, which is built out to level things up. The next year’s nest is placed on the old one but securely tied to the stem, and the third nest is built the same way. Double nests are not at all uncommon, and I have seen three where the third nest had been added.”

J. H. Bowles (Dawson and Bowles, 1909) writes:

There is scarcely a conceivable situation, except directly on the ground, that these birds will not select for a nesting site. Such odd places have been chosen as a knot in a large rope that hung from the rafters of woodshed; and again, amongst the wires of an electric light globe that was suspended in the front porch of a city residence. It may he found fifty feet up in some huge fir in the depths of the forest, or on the stem of some blackberry bush growing in a city lot.

Very often they form colonies during the nesting season, as many as twenty nests being built in a small area. Some large fir grove is generally chosen for the colony, hut a most interesting one was located on a tiny island in Puget Sound. This island has had most of its large timber cut away, and is heavily overgrown with huckleberry, blackberry, and small alders. In the center is the colony, the nests placed only a few yards apart on any vine or bush that will serve the purpose. Huckleberry bushes seem the favorites, but many nests are built in the alders and on the blackberry vines.

A. W. Anthony wrote to Major Bendire (1895): “I found the Rufous Hummingbird very abundant at Beaverton, Oregon. Here they nested in oaks, blackberry vines, and on dry roots projecting from upturned trees. One nest hung from the end of a tall fern, while others, drooping over it from above, hid the beautiful structure from all but accidental discovery. Their favorite sites, however, seemed to be the long, trailing vines overhanging embankments and upturned trees. A number were found in railroad cuts; frequently several nests were situated within a few feet of each other, a slight preference being shown for embankments having a southern exposure.”

What few nests of the rufous hummingbird I have seen are rather large, well made, and handsome structures; the body of the nest, including the lining, is made up mainly of pale buff cottony substances, apparently from willow blossoms; but this is mixed with and profusely covered externally with bright-green moss, so that the nest appears to be made largely of this moss; it is often more or less decorated on the outside with leaf or bud scales, shreds of inner bark, lichens, and various other plant fibres, all of which are securely bound on with spider web, making a firm compact structure. Bendire (1895) says that “an average nest measures 1½ inches in outer diameter by 1¼ inches in depth; the inner cup is about seven eighths of an inch in width by one-half inch deep.” One that I measured was 1¾ inches in outside diameter. The favorite nesting trees seem to be firs, spruces, and other conifers, but nests have also been found in willows, cypresses, ashes, apple trees, various oaks, and probably other trees, as well as numerous bushes, such as wild currant, salmonberry, hazel, etc. The nests are usually artfully decorated to match their surroundings. Dawson and Bowles (1909) say that “the nesting season is greatly protracted, for fresh eggs may be found from April till July. This makes it seem probable that each pair raises at least two broods during the spring and summer.”

Eggs: Two eggs almost invariably make up the full set for the rufous hummer, but Major Bendire (1895) records a set of three taken by Clyde L. Kellar, of Salem, Oreg. B. P. Brown tells me that often there is only one, and lie has “seen one nest that contained four, evidently contributed by two females.” The eggs are like other hummingbirds’ eggs, dead pure white and varying from oval to elliptical-oval in shape. The measurements of 53 eggs average 13.1 by 8.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 14.0 by 8.7, 13.1 by 10.0, 11.4 by 8.9, and 13.0 by 7.7 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be 12 days (Burns, 1921), but probably it is nearer 13 or 14 days, as with some other hummingbirds. This duty and the care of the young are performed entirely by the female; the male seldom, if ever, conies near the nest after the eggs are laid. William L. Finley (1905) writes:

As soon as the cottony cup was finished and the mother had cradled her twin white eggs, the father disappeared. He merely dropped out of existence, as Bradford Torrey says, leaving a widow with twins on her hands. This generally seems to be the case, for at the different nests where I have watched, I never but once saw a male hummer near the nest after the young were hatched. I was lying in the shade of the hushes a few feet from the nest one afternoon. For two whole days, I had been watching and photographing and no other hummer had been near. Suddenly a male darted up the canyon and lit on a dead twig opposite the nest. He hadn’t settled before the mother hurtled at him. I jumped up to watch. They shot up and down the hillside like winged bullets, through trees and over stomps, the mother, with tail spread and all the while squeaking like mad. It looked like the chase of two meteors, that were likely to disappear iii a shower of sparks, had they struck anything. If it was the father, he didn’t get a squint at the bantlings. If it was a bachelor a-wooing, he got a hot reception.

On the other hand, Alfred M. Bailey (1927) saw, in southeastern Alaska, an adult male incubating on a set of eggs nearly ready to hatch, of which he says: “I was walking along the base of a precipitous cliff when I noticed the handsome little male hovering over my head, about twenty feet up, and was then surprised to see him climb into a nest, in the terminal branches of a drooping spruce. When incubating, the little male squatted far down in the nest, with tail and beak pointed almost vertically, and he proved so tame that I believe I could have touched him.”

The following statements are based on, and the quotations are taken from, some elaborate notes sent to me by A. Dawes DuBois, who made an intensive study of a nest of the rufous hummingbird near Belton, Mont. In order to be able to study the parent and the single young bird at close range, he concealed himself in a “balsam cloak,” which was “prepared by sewing balsam boughs all over the outside of an old brown bathrobe. An old felt hat was covered with boughs, which hung down all around to hide the observer’s head and face while permitting observation through the interstices of the foliage.” Under this disguise, he could stand, motionless as a tree, with his eyes within 10 or 12 inches of the nest anti slightly above it.

Before the eggs hatched the female incubated almost constantly with absences of only a few minutes; one day, while the sun was shining on the nest most of the time, she was gone for more than an hour; during two hours of watching, on the day before the one egg hatched, the bird left the nest five times, for intervals varying from 5 to 19 minutes. One of the two eggs did not hatch, and, as the bird did not remove the remnants, Mr. DuBois did so.

After the one young bird hatched the female brooded it with frequent intervals of absence, much like those taken during incubation, up to the time that it was seven days old; from that time on, she “was absent much of the time during the mornings. In the afternoons she had to shelter the nestling from the sun.”

When the nestling was two days old, it was fed only three times between 8:45 a. m. and 6 p. m., but the observer was absent from 12 m. to 1:33 p. m. and from 3:30 to 3:45 p. m. “When four days old, the average of seven known intervals was about 44 minutes. When six days old, the average of 11 known intervals was 32 minutes. The frequency of feeding increased in the latter portion of the day.”

The number of regurgitations for each feeding varied from two to five; the total time occupied for five pumpings and subsequent examination and tidying of the nest was somewhat less than one minute. On July 20, when the nestling was two days old, “at 10:30, there was no pushing up and down; the parent seemed to pump the fluid by the slightest visible motion of her own throat. At 5:35 the same day she poked rather vigorously while regurgitating; and two days later, the poking was extremely vigorous. As observed on the 24th, the young bird’s head moved up and down with the mother’s bill. During one of the feedings, as I stood close to the nest with my head covered, I could see the liquid welling up in the young bird’s mouth. At the age of 5½ days, the young one responded very vigorously and took the whole length of the parent’s bill into his throat.

“The alvine discharges of the young hummingbird were forcibly ejected in a manner to render nest cleaning unnecessary. Very close observation from the balsa in cloak, on July 22, indicated that the parent did not take excrement from the young or nest; nor did the young emit excrement after being fed. On the 23d, while the parent was absent, I observed the method employed by the nestling, then five days old. Following a slight shaking of the nest, it struggled to reach the top of the high nest wall. The great depth of the nest made this very difficult, but the young bird accomplished it, standing literally on its head, braced against the wall of the nest. The discharge was projected to a distance of several inches beyond the nest.”

Mr. DuBois could not mention in his notes the length of time that his young bird remained in the nest, as it died prematurely, but Gladys Hammersley (1928) observed that the altricial period is about 20 days; she writes:

As the young hummers grew bigger they gradually tramped the nest out of shape, so that when they flew away on June 23rd it was no longer a dainty little cup, but an almost shapeless platform in comparison. There were no flying lessons; the little hummers buzzed fearlessly out into the world as though they had been accustomed to flying every day of their lives. They were not so expert with their feet, however, making several ineffectual attempts before securing a safe landing. I never found any young return to the nest having once left It, but they will return regularly to a chosen perch day after day, even when disturbed several times during the day, generally returning to precisely the same spot on the same twig each time.

Plumages: Mr. DuBois says that the young rufous hummingbird, when first hatched, is about as large as a honey bee, nearly black and quite naked, except for two slight tracts of grayish natal down extending longitudinally along the back. It is blind at first, but when six days old a slit begins to show in the membrane covering the eye, and by the twelfth day the eyes are well opened. The natal down grows longer day by day, and pinfeathers begin to show on the sixth and seventh days. From that time on the juvenal plumage continues to grow.

When fully fledged in fresh juvenal plumage the young male is similar to the adult female, the back largely green, but the upper tail coverts are “cinnamon-rufous” with terminal spots of metallic bronzegreen; the throat is dull white, spotted with dark bronzy; the chest is dull white, and the sides and flanks are heavily washed with “cinnamon-rufous.” Usually in August, but sometimes as early as the middle of July, some metallic red feathers begin to appear in the throat, increasing more or less during fall and winter; but I have seen one young male, taken as late as March 17, that still shows no red in the throat, though the back and rump are practically all rufous. The juvenal tail, with terminal white spots on the three outer rectrices somewhat smaller than those of the female, is worn all though fall and winter, until the complete annual molt, late in winter and early In spring, produces the adult plumage; I have seen one young male, taken on April 15, that was just completing this molt. Young females are like young males but have more green on the back. Adults apparently molt at the same time as young birds, late in winter and early in spring.

Food: The rufous hummingbird finds its nectar and probably its insect food in a great variety of flowers and in the blossoms of trees and shrubs, showing a decided preference for red flowers. Mr. Haskin, writing from Oregon, tells me that “early in spring the crimson-flowered currant is their favorite flower, next to that they resort in great numbers to another red flower, the columbine. Of white flowers, their favorite is the blossom of the madrona tree (Arbutus menziesii), whose flowers are perfect honey pots. A tree of the madrona in full bloom attracts them literally by the hundreds.” Frank L. Farley writes to me that in Alberta in July and August “its favorite flower appears to be the bright-colored nasturtium.”

M. P. Skinner says, in his notes from California, that it feeds on red columbine and “paint brush.” Of its insect hunting, he says: “Another individual alighted on some willow twigs beside a river and watched for the insects that flew by at frequent intervals. Twice it rose 5 or 6 feet for one and then dropped back to its perch. Twice it caught an insect 40 feet above its perch, showing what keen eyes it had. Then it made a dizzying swift dart down among the willows. After that this bird came back at intervals all through the morning to do the same kind of insect hunting over the willows and over the river waters.”

Mrs. Bailey (1902) writes:

On the birds’ breeding ground the flowers they feed on, as far as I have observed, are mainly red, as the hummer’s coloration might suggest On San Francisco Mountain, Arizona, they were especially fond of the scarlet pentstemons. On Mount Shasta they fed from the painted-cups, tiger lilies, and columbines. Any spot of red would attract them as it does other hummers, and they investigated it fearlessly even when it adorned the person of a collector.

One of the birds actually crossed a wide meadow of green brakes straight to a single columbine standing most inconspicuously near the woods. But the painted-cups were their especial delight on Shasta, and a meadow full of the flowers was fairly alive with them.

William H. Kobbé (1900) says that, in Washington, about Cape Disappointment, “they are particularly abundant about the flowering salmon-berry bushes and also the thimble-berry, but they seemed to be fonder of the honeysuckle blossoms than of either of the others.” Dr. A. M. Woodbury (1938) saw a rufous hummingbird feeding at the working of a red-naped sapsucker on some willows; they were apparently eating the sap that exuded, but may have been obtaining some of the insects that were attracted to the workings.

Harry S. Swarth (1922) relates the following story: “For a hummingbird to appear as a menace to a farm crop was a new role for a member of that family, but we heard of one such complaint of damage done. Mr. W. K Parrott, of Sergief Island, had a large strawberry patch, the fruit of which he marketed in the nearby town of Wrangell. Time and again, so he told us, he had seen a hummingbird dash at one of the bright red berries, apparently under the impression that it was a flower, and the bird’s bill would be thrust through the fruit, which, of course, was ruined. He had found a number of berries pierced in. this way, and was puzzled to account for the damage until lie saw a hummingbird in the act.”

Mr. DuBois says, in his notes, that the bird he was watching paid no attention to a red-clover blossom that he dipped in diluted honey and hung on a branch near the nest. He saw one “feeding in a novel manner over the small garden in the clearing. The bird was about 30 feet in the air, now poised on vibrating wings, now darting here and there like a dragonfly, apparently catching small insects on the wing. One day (July 22) I saw her drinking at the spring. She hovered above the pool, as she would above a flower, dipping her bill into the water several times. On the 27th, I again saw her getting water at the spring, hut in a different manner. She stood, for a second or two at a time, in the film of water that flowed over a board, and dipped her bill into it several times.”

Behavior: All observers seem to agree that jealous courage and pugnacity are among the chief attributes of the rufous hummingbird; it seems to be the dominant species in the vicinity of its nest and about its feeding places, driving away, not only other hummingbirds, but other species of larger birds and animals; it seems to love to fight and often appears to provoke a quarrel unnecessarily. Mr. DuBois has sent me the following note: “Once during the afternoon of July 17, while the hummingbird was incubating, an olive-backed thrush inadvertently came too close to the nest. The little bird darted after him so suddenly and violently that she made him squawk as he hurried away. Another intruder was a chipmunk. He was searching for huckleberries: running on the ground and climbing in the small bushes: and at length his occupation brought him almost beneath the hummer’s nest. She darted after him; and the sudden onslaught evidently filled him with terror. He beat a hasty retreat, squealing lustily as he ran. It is not surprising that the sudden movements of the hummingbird and the ominous sound of her wings, at close quarters, are terrorizing to any trespasser. On another occasion she chased a good sized bird away from the neighborhood.”

Mrs. Wheelock (1904) saw a male rufous hummer attack and drive away a Brewer’s blackbird that had chanced to alight in the bush containing the hummer’s nest. “This blackbird was nesting in a hollow post which stood in four feet of water fifty feet from the bush. His usual course in leaving his nest was over the hummer’s bush, and the male seldom failed to dart out at him from his watch tower near by.”

Mr. Kobbé (1900) writes:

The pugnacity of these birds is the most prominent characteristic of the species and when they are not fighting among themselves they make war upon other birds. The males are nearly always the participants and seem to take great delight in fighting each other with their utmost strength. It is a very common sight to see a male hummer perched upon a telegraph wire or exposed twig watching for others of his own sex with which to do battIe. Although they sometimes fall over and over toward the ground like two huge bees, they seldom harm one another, since their bills are very weak. The greatest efforts on the part of one of the Hammers only succeed in pulling out a few feathers of his adversary, who is finally driven away in a rather bedraggled condition. * * * On several occasions I have seen male Hummers fight and drive off Swallows from the vicinity of their nest, particularly when it contained eggs. During the nesting season the males frequently, hut not always, sit near the tree in which their home is placed and attempt to drive all birds from the vicinity of the nest. They pay great attention to their duty and seldom fail to dart after other Hummers, even if they are simply passing the tree in which the nest is placed. I have good reasons to believe that they do this more from a love of fighting than from parental instinct or devotion, since the male birds rarely appear upon the scene when their nest is being taken.

Henshaw (1886) writes of behavior on their feeding grounds in New Mexico:

Males and females all flock to the common feeding ground, and as the Hummers, especially of the Rufous-backed species, are pugnacious and hot tempered in the extreme, the field becomes a constant battle-ground whereon favorite flowers and favorite perching grounds are contested for with all the ardor that attaches to more important conquests. The fiery red throat of the Rufous-backed hummer is an index of its impetuous, aggressive disposition, and when brought into conflict with the other species it invariably asserts its supremacy and drives its rival in utter rout from the fields. Nor do the males of this species confine their warfare to their own sex. Gallantry has no place apparently in their breasts, and whoa conquest has put them in possession of a perch near a clump of flowers they wage war on all corners, females as well as males. * * *

When the attack is urged against the males of the Broad-tailed species the contest is less fierce, the latter species usually abandoning the ground in hot haste. The latter result always follows the assault of a male upon the females who, if less valiant in battle, are scarcely less backward when it comes to the assertion of their rights against intruders of their own sex. The rivalry the females display is not less marked if the battles it prompts are less fierce than when the males are engaged; occasionally the females will fight with all the ardor displayed by the males.

The elaborate notes that Mr. DuBois has sent me on his intensive study of the home life of this species well illustrate its tameness, its devotion to its young, and its lack of fear after it had learned to trust him. He was able to approach cautiously, without any concealment, to within about 18 inches of the nest and to take numerous photographs at short range, without causing the bird much concern. On the second day the camera was placed on the tripod close to the nest; she examined it thoroughly several times and from all sides but did not seem much afraid of it; and on the following day she sat with her tail toward the instrument, thus showing her indifference to it. For a close study of the care of the young, he disguised himself as a balsam tree, being well covered with balsam boughs and twigs; the bird paid almost no attention to him with this disguise, and he was able to watch proceedings for long periods with his face within about a foot of the nest. At first she was suspicious and would not go to the nest hut buzzed all around him, chirping and examining his make-up very minutely, and when she came within an inch or two of his ear, he found the boom of her wings a formidable sound; she repeated this examination twice more before she settled on the nest for any length of time.

It is a well-known fact that hummingbirds are attracted to investigate any red object that might suggest a flower. Dr. Grinnell (1909) records that, on Admiralty Island, Alaska, a brilliant male rufous hummer “buzzed about some bright red tomato cans that had been thrown out. Stephens records that at the same place, May 2, a male came around camp investigating everything that was red, such as a red-bordered towel, the red places on the end of a fruit box, an empty salmon can, and particularly a red bandana handkerchief hanging on a bush; this the bird went to three times.”

Voice: During the courtship performance a twittering note is heard from the male, as well as a whining sound, which is probably caused by the rush of air through the wings. Ralph C. Tate (1928) heard “a peculiar sound, somewhere between a. buzz and a grunt,” from a male that was feeding at the flowers of a trumpetvine on his porch. Dr. Wetmore (1921) says that “in flying their wings made a subdued humming and the birds called chewp chewp in a low tone.”

G. Hammersley (1928) writes from Crofton, British Columbia:

When the fruit trees came into blossom, Mr. Hummer was in the orchard every day. One does not have to see him in order to know that he Is there, as he has his own peculiar song or “drumming.” It is uttered as he swoops past one or shoots swiftly overhead and might he written ch-ch-ch chut-churrr or tut-ut-ut-ut-turrre. Immediately after making this sound he darts straight upwards until reaching the desired height when he comes to a sudden and complete full stop, remaining stationary in the air like a glittering ruby set in the blue sky. Whilst inthis position he will repeat the ordinary call note of tchik which Is common to both the sexes, then dropping suddenly he flies back to his “watch-tower”. I think that the drumming sound is probably produced by the tail feathers. The male hummer has the monopoly of another and quite different sound also. This sound Is produced continually as long as the bird is on the wing, and only varies by increasing in volume each time the bird moves from its position in the air. The sound is difficult to describe, but might be likened to tiny beads vibrating regularly in a thin metal box. Although, as far as my own observations go, the male rufous never flies without making this vibrating sound, the female never at any time produces it.

Mr. DuBois says in his notes: “Usually the mother bird was silent; but when the nestling was two days old I once heard the mother chirping for a moment, from among the branches of a fallen tree, before she came to settle in the nest.” When agitated she chirped while on the nest.

Field marks: The male rufous hummingbird can be easily recognized by the large amount of rufous on the upper parts, including the posterior portion of the crown, the back, and most of the tail; the brilliant metallic scarlet gorget is very conspicuous and shines like burnished gold in some lights; the chest is white, but otherwise the underparts are pale rufous. The only species that closely resembles it is Allen’s hummingbird, which has a green back.

The female can hardly be distinguished in the field from the female of Allen’s, as both have much light rufous on the underparts, and their tails are largely rufous basally, the three outer rectrices being broadly tipped with white. A close inspection of the tails will show slight differences between the two species. The outer tail feathers of the rufous are broader at the black space, about 0.15, as against about 0.10 of an inch in Allen’s. Ridgway (1911) says that in the rufous “middle pair of rectrices metallic bronze-green (usually more dusky terminally), both webs broadly edged basally with cinnamon-rufous (sometimes with whole basal half or more of this color); next pair with more than basal half cinnamon-rufous, then metallic bronze-green, the terminal portion purplish black.” And, of Allen’s, he says: “Middle pair of rectrices with basal half (laterally, at least) cinnamon-rufous, the terminal half (more or less) metallic bronze green; next pair similar, but terminal portion (extensively) black, the tip of inner web sometimes with a small spot of white.”

Enemies: Mr. Sprot (1927) tells of a male rufous hummer that tried its towering flight once too often, “when he staged a drop on a Black Pigeon Hawk, and got caught.” Probably other hawks, and perhaps owls, have taken their toll. Mr. Skinner says in his notes: “One was seen resting on a willow twig in the sun until an irascible Audubon’s warbler made a dive at it and drove it away, but in a moment the hummer was back again. After its return, it seemed very nervous, as if the rowdy Audubon had ruffled its feelings. Another one was chased away by a lutescent warbler.”

Mr. DuBois (1938) saw a large black and yellow fly attack the young hummer that he was watching and slightly wound it; it might have killed it, if he had not driven it away. The mother of this young bird disappeared mysteriously, and he suspected a weasel might have been the cause.

Fall: The fall migration from its breeding grounds in Alaska starts early, and sometimes these hummers wander out over the ocean. S. F. Rathbun tells me that on July 20, 1914, while he was crossing the Gulf of Alaska and was just within sight of land, off Nespina Glacier, a male rufous hummingbird came aboard and alighted on one of the stays of the ship’s stack. It showed no alarm, and after about 15 minutes it flew off toward the land.

After the breeding season the summer wanderings of this hummingbird extend well III) into the mountains, even in Washington. On Mount Rainier, on August 6, Taylor and Shaw (1927) saw individuals flying over the glaciers at 6,000 and at 9,000 feet altitude. “We were now hung, as it were, between earth and heaven, 2,500 feet above timber line. The water supply froze shortly after 5 o’clock p. in., and the midsummer breeze was cold and cheerless. What was our surprise to find the hummers still with us. One whizzed past us as we were making camp, and two more were observed the following morning.”

On the southward migration through the Rocky Mountain region, the rufous hummingbird is sometimes very abundant at high altitudes, wherever it can find flowers in bloom; it has been seen as high as 12,600 feet on Truchas Peak in the Upper Pecos region, N. Mex., according to Mrs. Bailey (1904). Henshaw (1886), writing of this same region, says:

The number of representatives of this and the preceding species that make their summer homes in these mountains is simply beyond calculating. No one whose experience is limited to the Eastern United States can form any adequate idea of their abundance. They occur from an altitude of about 7,500 feet far up on the mountain sides, as high up, in fact, as suitable flowers afford them the means of subsistence. They are most numerous at an altitude of from 8,000 to 9,000 feet. During the entire summer they frequent almost exclusively a species of Scrophuloria which grows in clumps in the sunnier spots in the valleys. From early dawn till dusk the Hummingbirds throng around these plants intent in surfeiting themselves on honey and the minute Insects that the honey attracts. The scene presented in one of these flowering areas is a most attractive one. * * *

Some idea of the number of Hummingbirds in this locality – and in this respect this whole mountain area is alike, may gained from the statement that in a single clump of the Scrophuloria I have counted eighteen hummers, all within reach of an ordinary fishing rod. There was scarcely a moment in the day when upwards of fifty could not he counted within an area of a few yards in nay of the patches of this common plant.

Mr. Swarth (1904) says of its appearance in the Huachuca Mountains, Arizona: “I have not seen this species at any time in the spring, but about the middle of July they begin to make their appearance; and throughout the month of August I found them very abundant, but frequenting the highest parts of the mountains, principally; more being seen between 8000 and 9000 feet than elsewhere.

“The flowering mescal stalks are a great attraction to them, and they seem to frequent them in preference to anything else. I have seen as many as twenty Rufous Hummingbirds around a single stalk, mostly immature birds, but with a fair sprinkling of adult males. No adult females were taken at any time.”

Grinnell and Storer (1924) say of the migration in the Yosemite region, in California:

Most of tile northbound movement probably takes place at low altitudes and in any event occurs too early in the spring to be observed by most visitors in the Yosemite section. But the migration initiated in late June or early July continues until the middle of September, and especially at the higher altitudes is much in evidence. * * *

The first representatives of the species to he seen in the southbound migration are males. Thus the bird seen near Yosemite Point on July 1 was a fully adult male, as it showed an all-rufous back. But later in the same month the females and their young began to pass through. Of the birds seen in Lyell Cañon on July 23 at least one was a female (immature). The southbound migration was evidently in full swing by that (late as no less than 5 separate individuals were seen during two or three hours silent on the meadows and adjacent slopes.

A visit to Parsons Peak on September 6, 1915, showed that tile migration was still in progress, and further, that tile Rufous Hummingbirds were evidently using the crest of the Sierra Nevada as a fly-way. During the short time spent at the top of the peak, 12,120 feet, two of these diminutive travelers were seen flying southward, laboring against the strong southerly breeze; both took advantage of the same gap in the rocks to gain a slight respite from the buffeting of the wind. Other observers have told us of similar incidents observed by them while visiting peaks elsewhere along the backbone of the Sierra Nevada.

Mr. Woods (1927) says of Los Angeles County lowlands: “The adult male is only an occasional visitant, on the southward migration in late summer, though the females, or more probably immature birds of both sexes, are seen more frequently.” The inference from all the foregoing observations is that the northward migration in spring is mainly through the lower levels and chiefly to the westward of the main mountain chains and that the southward migration in fall follows mainly the crests of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.


Range: Western North America.

Breeding range: The breeding range of the rufous hummingbird extends north to southeastern Alaska (Montague Island, probably Cordova, and Careross). East to eastern Alaska (Careross); British Columbia (Telegraph Creek and Fort St. James); southwestern Alberta (Banif); and western Montana (Belton, Anaconda, and Red Lodge). South to southern Montana (Red Lodge); southern Idaho (Blue Lake); and east-central California (Silver Creek). West to California (Silver Creek and Mount Shasta); Oregon (Newport and Netarts); Washington (Gig Harbor, Lake Crescent, and Tatoosh Island); western British Columbia (Courtenay and Graham Island); and southeastern Alaska (Ketchikan, Sitka, Point Couverden, and Montague Island).

Winter range: During the winter months this species is more or less concentrated in the Mexican States of Zacatecas (La Parada), Jalisco (Volcano de Colima), Mexico (Tlalpam), and Michoacan (Lake Patzcuaro).

Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: California: Haywards, February 11; Berkeley, February 12. Oregon: Newport, March 4; Corvallis, March 11. Washington: Tacoma, February 26; Ilwaco, March 9; North Yakima, March 12. British Columbia: Massett, April 2; Chilliwack, April 11. Idaho: Rathdrum, May 5. Montana: Missoula, April 30. Alaska: Ketchikan, April 10; Juneau, April 18.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Alaska: Craig, September 9; St. Lazaria Island, September 30. British Columbia: Arrow Lakes, September 22; Courtnay, October 4. Washington: Seattle, September 26; Clallam Bay, October 7. Oregon: Newport, October 18; Coos Bay, October 28. Montana: Fortine, September 13; Belton, September 14.

Casual records: The rufous hummingbird has been detected outside its normal range on several occasions, some cases being notable records. It was reported as observed at Camrose, Alberta, on August 24, 1930, and there are at least two and probably three specimen records for the vicinity of Eastend, Saskatchewan, the dates being August 11, 1939, August 18, 1932, and July 31, 1933. The species was reported from Kenton, Okla., under date of August 10, 1927, and a specimen was collected at Brownsville, Tex., on January 19, 1892. One was found dead at Pensacola, Fla., on November 29, 1934, two others being seen in the same area until December 13, while it was again recorded from this point on December 8, 12, 14, and 17, 1935. A specimen was taken in Charleston, S. C., on December 18, 1909.

Egg dates: British Columbia: 7 records, May 6 to July 6.

Oregon: 11 records, April 27 to June 29.

Washington: 12 records, April 22 to June 7; 6 records, May 3 to 30, indicating the height of the season.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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