Hummingbirds: aesthetic and masterful

By Audrey F. Baker | Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation

Hummingbirds (hummers) amaze. Europeans first observing the New World exotics postulated they were a fusion of bird and insect. The distinctive insect-like humming sounds they produced stem from rapid wing beats and is an apt moniker.

Viewing the speed and agility of their helicopter flight (up, down, sideways, backward, upside down), delights. With wings that drum the air from 20 to 200 times per second, who needs to walk or hop?

The hummingbirds of Mission Trails Regional Park: Allen’s (Photo by Wendy Esterly)

Aesthetically, they rule. Jewel-like coloration resonates in sunlight, adroit acrobatic movement is enhanced by surrounding deeply colored tubular flowers.

San Diego County is home to five hummingbird species. Four are associated with Mission Trails Regional Park. Anna’s (Calypte anna) and black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) are park nesters; Costa’s (Calypte costae) and Allen’s (Selasphorus sasin) are visitors. [Rufous (Selasphorus rufus) is a bird of mountain meadows.]

The hummingbirds of Mission Trails Regional Park: black-chinned (Photo by Wendy Esterly)

Classified as nectivores, 90 percent of a hummingbird’s diet is derived from flowering plants. The remaining fraction is insect and spider consumption. Hummers go “hawking” (catching insects in mid-air) or glean them, and spiders, from spider webs and flowers. Considering size, hummingbirds consume 77 times what humans eat.

While walking our trails, should you hear particularly loud buzzing amid an insect swarm, you may be in the presence of a black-chinned. Masterfully adaptive, it can survive without nectar when insects are plentiful.

Hummingbirds are not attracted by floral fragrance. Yet they maintain advantage over the insect world – they see red, reigning over flowers many nectar-driven insects cannot see.

Where bees and other insects are restricted by unavailable landing spots, hummingbirds take advantage of nectar treasure by hovering. Here the wings turn in opposite directions and reverse themselves creating a figure-eight movement. Downward-facing blooms are no obstacle.

To maintain energetic daytime activity levels, hummers enter torpor, night hibernation that lowers body temperature, breathing and heart rate, and allows rest.

While admiring plants as varied as white and black sage, tree tobacco, heart-leaf penstemon, bush monkeyfower, cholla cacti and cottonwoods, you may observe the mustached Costa’s feeding. Among sycamores you might espy black-chinned’s nest constructed from the lint of its leaves and fused by spider web, creating a golden-colored cup.

The hummingbirds of Mission Trails Regional Park: Costa’s (Photo by Wendy Esterly)

Should your eyes detect a flash of copper while viewing Indian paintbrush, currant, ceanothus, gooseberry, sage or manzanita flowerings, focus in for Allen’s hummingbird.

Hummers are extending their range. Historically, Anna’s hummingbirds bred only in Southern California and northern Baja California. Benefiting from the mid-19th century introduction of eucalyptus trees to the West Coast, they now nest northward to British Columbia and eastward into Arizona.

The hummingbirds of Mission Trails Regional Park: Anna’s (Photo by Wendy Esterly)

A compact and ornate appearance hides a mighty foe. Here’s proof size doesn’t matter. A hummer committed to eliminating a hawk from its territory emits a high-pitched warning and becomes a courageous kamikaze, dive bombing and summoning other hummers and different bird species to join in.

Formidable creatures, speed outflanks enemies. Surprise, however, equals demise. Its nemeses are entrapment in a spider web, the clutches of a dragonfly, or the powerful and violent speed of a formerly motionless and camouflaged praying mantis. Orioles and roadrunners are adversarial birds.

The male hummingbird is solitary and relinquishes responsibility for nest building and chick raising. He initiates mating by vocally summoning the color restrained female, and dazzles her with stunning iridescent feathers.

Hummers are known for their elaborate courtship ritual. The Anna’s display is most impressive.

Under the watchful eye of a female perched near her nest site, from a maximum height of 130 feet, the male plummets downward. Short of the ground, a hook maneuver generates a high pitched sound created by air battered through his tail feathers. “Shuttle display” follows, showing off those mesmerizing feathers, as the male arcs like a pendulum a foot above the female. With his head down toward the female, he simultaneously serenades with song.

Newborns have sealed eyes and a knob for a bill. Tiny, vulnerable chicks may be preyed upon by large insects. By three to four weeks, they fledge.

Think you have your hummingbird basics down? Enter the occasional stray! The broad-billed (Cynanthus latirostris), considered a Mexican species, was seen in the park from Oct. 31-Nov. 4. Hummers amaze!

— Audrey F. Baker is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park. For more information about the park, visit Call 619-668-3281 for more information on the park’s free offerings and opportunities to learn more about natural Southern California. Special walks can be arranged for scouts, clubs, or other organizations of any fitness or mobility level. Contact Ranger Chris Axtmann at 619-668-3277 or

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