Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hummers in the Hills

March 2008
There are few birds as familiar and inspirational as hummers, both delicate and powerful enough to be namesakes of gems and gods. The Aztecs worshipped a deity named Huitzilopochtli, who was depicted as a hummingbird or “huitzel” which means “shining one with weapon-like thorn.” The Portugese call them “beija-flor,” or “flower kissers;” in Spanish they are named “joyas voladores,” or “flying jewels.”

All 338 species of hummingbird are native only to the Western hemisphere. Of those, eighteen have ventured north of the Mexican border. Half again (9) have been spotted flitting about the Phoenix metro area. But only three are common to the Deem Hills territory: the robust Anna’s, the petite Costa’s, and the slender Black-chinned hummingbird.

Of those three, you are most likely to see an Anna’s on any given day. Fifty years ago, Anna’s hummingbird would be an uncommon sight in Phoenix most of the year. But with the growth of suburbs and irrigated garden landscapes, these tiny aeronauts have expanded their range from coastal California to become year-round residents and breeders in this oasis of the Sonoran Desert. The species was named in honor of Anna Massena, Duchess of Rivoli, who was married to an ornithologist named Francois Massena. Both were friends of Rene Lesson, a French naturalist and surgeon. Lesson was one of the first Europeans to publish scientific records of hummingbirds after sailing around the world on an expedition exploring the islands of the South Pacific and coast of South America in the 1820’s. In addition to being the only fully red-headed hummingbird, Anna’s males are well-known for their spectacular courtship and territorial displays in which they dive from 100 feet in the air at 60 mph, coming out just before they reach the ground and punctuating their feat with a loud squeak.

Costa’s are the most desert-adapted species of the three, although they will escape to the tropics during the blistering heat of summer, returning between October and May to breed. These are the most likely to be seen up in the Deem Hills, where they will seek out ocotillo, desert lavender, fairy duster, wolfberry and other nectar-producing native plants. In good light, the male sports a purple forehead and throat, with long “sideburn” feathers. This species is much smaller than the Anna’s, but with a shortish neck that makes them look “small and dumpy” according to Sibley’s Guide to Birds. The courtship display of Costa’s is distinguished by shrill whistling while performing repeated loops 75-120 feet in the air. This species is also a namesake of French nobility, an ornithologist and collector named Louis Costa.

The Black-chinned is known as our “summer hummer” because they keep a schedule opposite to that of Costa’s, wintering in Mexico and breeding in the southwestern U.S. between April and July. The males have a velvety black chin and deep purple throat with a whiter chest than the grayish-green chested Anna’s. They are most likely to be seen along washes or in suburban areas where there is more water during the hot summer. If you see a hummer dancing back and forth in a low u-shaped arc, you are witnessing Black-chinned courtship.

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