Bird O'clock

Discovering the Fascinating Behaviors and Plumage of the Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

Birdwatching is one of the most popular hobbies in the world. It involves observing the fascinating behaviors and beautiful plumages of different bird species.

In the United States, one of the most popular birds among birdwatchers is the Broad-tailed Hummingbird. This tiny bird is known for its brilliant colors, rapid wingbeats, and unique vocalizations.

This article will explore the characteristics and behaviors of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, as well as its identification and plumage.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a small bird, with a length of about 3.5 inches and a wingspan of 4.25 inches. It has a green back and crown, a rufous-colored tail with black tips, and a white breast.

Its most distinctive feature is its broad, rounded tail, which it spreads and flares during courtship displays. Field


To identify a Broad-tailed Hummingbird in the field, you can look for several characteristics.

They have a small, compact body with short legs and a straight bill. They are often seen hovering in mid-air, with rapid wingbeats, and then darting to catch insects or feed on nectar from flowers.

They also have a distinctive call, which is a high-pitched squeak or trill that is similar to a cricket’s chirping.

Similar Species

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird can be easily confused with other hummingbird species, especially during migration or when they are not in breeding plumage. Its closest relative is the Rufous Hummingbird, which shares a similar size and shape.

However, the Rufous Hummingbird has a more reddish-brown coloration, a straight tail, and a different call. The Calliope Hummingbird is another similar species, but it is smaller, with a dark throat and stripes on its face.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird has two distinct plumages, which it alternates between during the year.

Breeding Plumage

During the breeding season, males have a bright green back and crown, a red throat, and a metallic sheen on their wings and tail. Females have a duller green back and crown, with a buff-colored throat and breast.

Non-breeding Plumage

During the non-breeding season, both sexes have a more drab coloration. They lose their metallic sheen and their green color fades to a grayish-brown.

Males lose their red throat and instead have a white throat with a few red feathers.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird undergoes two molts each year – the prebasic molt and the prealternate molt.

Prebasic Molt

The prebasic molt occurs after the breeding season, usually in late summer or early fall. During this molt, the bird sheds its old feathers and grows new ones.

This is necessary for the bird to replace damaged or worn-out feathers and maintain its ability to fly and stay warm.

Prealternate Molt

The prealternate molt occurs in the spring, before the breeding season. During this molt, the bird grows new feathers that are necessary for attracting a mate and defending territory.

Males grow their bright green feathers and iridescent plumage, while females grow their duller feathers.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a fascinating bird species, with its unique plumage and behaviors. Its identification and plumage are easy to recognize, making it one of the most popular birds among birdwatchers.

By understanding its characteristics, behaviors, and molts, we can appreciate and admire this tiny bird in a deeper way. , as the informational nature of the article does not require one.

Systematics History

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird was first described by William Swainson in 1827. Since then, its taxonomy has undergone several revisions.

Initially, it was classified in the genus Ornismya, which included several other South American hummingbirds. Later, it was moved to the genus Selasphorus, which includes several other hummingbird species found in North and South America.

Geographic Variation

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird has a wide range, spanning from western North America to Central America. Within this range, it exhibits several geographic variations in its morphology and vocalizations.

These variations are believed to be the result of adaptations to different environmental conditions.


Currently, six subspecies of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird are recognized:

1. Selasphorus platycercus platycercus – Found in the Rocky Mountains of North America, from Wyoming to northern New Mexico.

It has a green back and crown, a red throat, and a rufous-colored tail. 2.

Selasphorus platycercus scintilla – Found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. It has a more bronzy-green coloration on its back and crown, and a more rufous-colored tail than the nominate subspecies.

3. Selasphorus platycercus ariel- Found in the southern Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico to Arizona.

It has a more bluish-green coloration on its back and crown, and a thinner rufous tail. 4.

Selasphorus platycercus mexicanus – Found in the mountains of Mexico. It has a darker green back and crown, a more reddish-colored throat, and a thinner rufous tail.

5. Selasphorus platycercus almourolensis – Found in the mountains of Costa Rica.

It has a more olive-green coloration on its back and crown, a greenish throat, and a thinner tail with reddish tips. 6.

Selasphorus platycercus dugesi – Found in the mountains of Guatemala. It has a more golden-green coloration on its back and crown, a greenish throat, and a rufous tail with orangey tips.

Related Species

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is closely related to several other species in the genus Selasphorus, including the Rufous Hummingbird, the Allen’s Hummingbird, and the Calliope Hummingbird. All of these species are found in North America and share similar morphology and behaviors.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The distribution of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird has changed over time in response to climate change, habitat loss, and human activity. During the last ice age, its range was restricted to warmer regions in the southern United States and Mexico.

As the climate warmed, the bird was able to expand its range northward, colonizing the mountainous regions of western North America. In recent times, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird has faced several threats to its survival.

Habitat loss due to urbanization, agriculture, and logging has reduced the amount of suitable breeding habitat for the bird. Additionally, climate change and drought have altered the timing and availability of flowering plants, which is a critical food source for the bird during the breeding season.

Finally, collisions with cars and buildings pose a risk to the bird during migration. Conservation efforts have been implemented to mitigate these threats.

These include the protection of important breeding and wintering habitats, the restoration of degraded habitats, and the education of the public about the importance of conserving these birds. These efforts have been successful in stabilizing the populations of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, although it still faces ongoing threats from habitat loss and climate change.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a fascinating bird species that has undergone several changes in its taxonomy and distribution over time. Its geographic variation and subspecies have adapted to different environmental conditions within its range.

Threats to its survival, such as habitat loss and climate change, have posed challenges to its conservation. It is important to continue monitoring and conserving this beautiful bird species to ensure its survival for future generations.

, as the informational nature of the article does not require one.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is primarily found in mountainous regions of North and Central America, from southern Alaska to Costa Rica. Within this range, it occupies a variety of habitats, including open forests, clearings, meadows, and chaparral.

It prefers areas with abundant flowers for nectar and insects for protein. In the northern part of its range, it is found at higher elevations, while in the southern part, it is found at lower elevations.

The breeding habitat of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird consists of open areas with scattered trees and shrubs, such as mountain meadows, aspen groves, and riparian corridors. These habitats provide suitable nest sites and abundant food resources.

During migration and winter, the bird is found in a variety of habitats, including deserts, coastal scrub, and tropical forests.

Movements and Migration

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a migratory bird, with the northernmost populations of the species being migratory. They breed in the mountainous regions of western North America during the summer and then migrate to warm wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America during the fall and winter months.

Migration patterns of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird vary depending on the region and population. In general, northern populations of the bird migrate longer distances than southern populations.

Populations from Alaska and northern Canada migrate up to 1,500 miles, while populations from the southern United States and Mexico migrate shorter distances. During migration, the bird must navigate long distances over land and sea to reach its wintering grounds.

This is a challenging task for such a small bird, and many do not survive the journey due to exhaustion, predation, and weather events. To prepare for migration, the bird undergoes physiological changes, such as an increase in body fat and a decrease in metabolic rate.

These changes enable the bird to store energy and conserve resources during the long flight. In addition to physiological changes, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird also exhibits behavioral changes during migration.

They typically fly non-stop for several hours, then stop to rest and refuel before continuing. They also avoid crossing large bodies of water and instead take advantage of narrow land bridges or islands to keep their flight path shorter.

Once they reach their wintering grounds, the birds establish territories and defend them against other hummingbirds. They feed on a variety of nectar sources, including a number of hummingbird-pollinated flowers and flowering shrubs.

They also consume small insects, which are an important source of protein for the bird. As winter gives way to spring, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird begins its migration back north to its breeding grounds.

Male birds typically arrive first and establish territories, while females arrive later and begin selecting nest sites.

Breeding activity typically peaks between mid-May and mid-June.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is an impressive migratory bird that traverses thousands of miles each year between its breeding and wintering grounds. Its migration is facilitated by a variety of physiological and behavioral adaptations, which enable it to store energy and navigate over long distances.

By studying its movements and habitat preferences, we can better understand and appreciate this amazing bird. Efforts to conserve its breeding and wintering habitats are critical to ensuring its survival for generations to come.

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Diet and Foraging

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is primarily a nectarivore, feeding on the nectar of flowers using its specialized tongue. However, it also consumes small insects, which provide an important source of protein for the bird.

The bird feeds by hovering in mid-air and extending its long tongue into the flower, licking up the nectar. It also captures small insects by gleaning them from foliage or snatching them out of the air.


During the breeding season, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeds primarily on nectar from flowering plants such as columbine and penstemon. These nectar sources provide the bird with the energy it needs to sustain its rapid wingbeats and regulate its body temperature.

During the non-breeding season, the bird feeds on a variety of nectar sources in its wintering grounds, such as agave and salvia. In addition to nectar, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird also feeds on small insects, such as gnats and spiders.

This provides an important source of protein, which is necessary for muscle and feather growth and repair. The bird captures insects using a variety of foraging techniques, including hawking, gleaning, and sallies.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The high metabolic rate of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a key adaptation for its hovering flight and rapid wingbeats. During flight, the bird consumes oxygen at a rate 10 times higher than when at rest.

To fuel this high rate of oxygen consumption, the bird has a high rate of sugar metabolism, which allows it to convert the nectar it consumes into energy quickly. The Broad-tailed Hummingbird also has a unique adaptation for thermoregulation.

During the night, its body temperature drops significantly, to a level approaching ambient temperature. This allows the bird to conserve energy and avoid the heat loss that would occur if its body temperature remained high.

During the day, the bird uses a combination of panting and evaporative cooling to maintain its body temperature within a narrow range.

Sounds and Vocal


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is known for its unique vocalizations, which are used for communication, territorial defense, and mate attraction.


The primary vocalization of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a high-pitched trill or chirp, which is given by both males and females. The male’s trill is faster and higher-pitched than the female’s.

The trill is used to establish and defend a territory, as well as to attract a mate during courtship displays. The Broad-tailed Hummingbird also produces a variety of other vocalizations, including a chattering call, which is used in aggressive encounters with other hummingbirds, and a high-pitched whistle, which is used in flight displays.

Male birds also produce a distinct sound by rapidly moving the feathers on their wings during courtship displays, known as wing-whirring. The vocalizations of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird are an important aspect of its behavior and ecology, allowing the bird to communicate with other birds and establish and maintain social relationships.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is a fascinating bird with a unique diet and foraging behavior, as well as a rich vocal repertoire. Its ability to hover in mid-air and rapidly consume nectar and small insects is a key adaptation for its high metabolic demands.

Its vocalizations are an important part of its behavior, used for communication, territorial defense, and mate attraction. Understanding these aspects of the bird’s biology is important for its conservation, as efforts to preserve its breeding and wintering habitats are crucial for ensuring its survival in the face of ongoing threats such as habitat loss and climate change.

, as the informational nature of the article does not require one.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird exhibits a range of behaviors related to locomotion, self-maintenance, agonistic behavior, and sexual behavior.


The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is able to hover in mid-air using its rapid wingbeats, which can reach up to 80 beats per second. Its wings are small and compact, which allows it to change direction quickly and maneuver through complex environments.

The bird is also able to fly backward and upside down, which is a unique adaptation for hummingbirds.

Self Maintenance

Like other birds, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird engages in behaviors related to self-maintenance, such as preening and bathing. Preening involves using the bill to clean and adjust feathers, while bathing involves splashing water on the feathers to remove dirt and debris.



During the breeding season, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird engages in agonistic behavior when defending its territory from other hummingbirds. This behavior may include chases, aerial displays, visual and auditory displays, and physical contact such as pecking and striking.



Male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds engage in a unique courtship behavior known as a “pendulum display.” This involves the male hovering in front of the female, then arching his body backward and extending his wings and tail feathers. He then swings his body forward and backward in a pendulum-like motion while emitting a high-pitched trill.

This display is used to attract a female mate and establish dominance over other males.


The breeding season for the Broad-tailed Hummingbird occurs during the summer months in the mountains of western North America. Males arrive at the breeding grounds first and establish territories by defending feeding and nesting sites.

Females arrive later and select a male based on the quality of his territory and his courtship display. Once a pair forms, the male will engage in a variety of behaviors to attract and retain the female’s attention.

This may include singing, courtship feeding, and displays of agility such as flying upside down. The female builds the nest using various materials such as spider silk, moss, and lichen.

The nest is typically located in a conifer tree or a shrub, and is camouflaged with lichen and other materials to avoid detection by predators. The female lays two small eggs, which she incubates for about 16-18 days.

Demography and Populations

Population densities of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird vary throughout its range and are influenced by a variety of factors, including habitat quality, food availability, and predation risk. Population sizes also fluctuate from year to year in response

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