This is an article I penned in August 1981 for the “Birds of Jackson Hole” column in the Jackson Hole News. With a few small updates it’s still relevant today, so I thought I’d share.
“In Jackson Hole, hummingbirds are most often noted and are easiest to see in July and August. Some of us are fortunate to have sugar water feeders which attract large numbers of those hyper creatures all summer, but for most of us (and often for feeder owners as well), July and August are the especially active months. And when hummers are active, it can be circus-rodeo-fireworks time all at once.
“Hummers are our smallest birds. Some are only 2 3/4 inches long, and they weigh almost nothing. A calliope hummingbird weighs less than 1/10 of an ounce, or 2.5 grams.
“Hummingbirds have long, needlelike bills, just what they need to sip nectar out of flowers. They sport colorful, iridescent plumage. They are incredible flying machines — capable of the short hop or the long flight. Vertical takeoffs are kid stuff up or down. Hovering is normal, the customary feeding posture. Flying backwards or sideways is routine. Sitting seems to be mainly an interim maneuver, lasting just long enough for the bird to discover in which direction to launch an intercept against another hummer.
“Work carried out some years ago at the University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Center (then at Moran) indicated that a hummingbird will aggressively defend a good food source. “Good” meaning high in energy; “defend” meaning keeping it for himself (or herself), which in turn means trying to drive everybody else away. Which means it gets difficult to see when the “owner” gets time to feed. (One local observer calls him “the boss.”) He has to eat, of course, or some fundamental law of energy expended to energy derived would be violated. Besides, that sugar water in the feeder can’t evaporate that fast. It’s tough work, though, for some are on station at 6 a.m. and not off duty until 10 p.m. An air traffic controllers stint.
“Hummingbirds are tough to identify. They move fast. They’re tiny. Females and immatures of many of the 15 North American species are similar, identical to the eye. Throat feather colors, often the best field mark, are just featureless black patches or specks in poor light; it usually takes sunlight to reflect iridescent colorations.
“Locally, we have records of four hummer species: black-chinned; broad-tailed; rufous; and calliope. The calliope is the smallest hummingbird and is common in Jackson Hole. The male calliope has purple-red streaked feathers on a white throat. The popular name for these birds is the hummer because their wings bat so fast they make a humming noise. Broad-trailed hummingbird wings, however, make a shrill metallic whistle. That noise and the solid red male throat and green head identify the broad-tail.
“The black-chinned hummingbird’s throat patch is truly black (in all light), the head is green and black, and there is a purple patch on the upper chest as well. The rufous male is a solid reddish all over its head and back and has a brilliant red throat patch. It’s a gorgeous little fellow.
“Identification of birds is, I suppose, the birdwatcher’s nectar. To many it is fun to know what species a particular bird is. (To others it’s an obsession, but surely nobody around here is in such a sorry state.) With hummingbirds in sight — maybe a half dozen or two dozen, males, females, immatures, all zipping erratically and abruptly all about — it’s pretty unlikely (probably impossible even if you’re an expert) that you can identify each one every time.
As I’ve convinced myself about wildflowers, it’s quite often enough simply to enjoy seeing them. Enjoy the hummers in July and August because they will leave in early to mid-September, heading south. Enjoy them and encourage them to fuss and feed on their supplemental one-part sugar, four-parts water diet so long as they brighten up our summer.”
Field notes: See any ground squirrels lately?
I can’t remember a summer with so many chislers. How about you?