By PATRICIA SIMPSON
Hummingbirds are extraordinary birds and have long captured the imagination of all, young and old. How can something so small and delicate (roughly 3 to 4 inches long and weighing only about 3 grams) be so tough, rough, and ill-tempered? I once heard an NPR interview from a scientist (whose name I haven’t been able to find) specializing in extreme aggressive behavior in the animal kingdom. When asked what the most violent animal was, he replied without hesitation: the hummingbird! When you must consume half your weight in sugar every day, defending your food source becomes a matter of life and death.
In Mission Trails Regional Park, we are lucky to enjoy a number of different “tiny tyrant” species, one of which is the Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin). The male can be distinguished from most other species by its orange underbelly, tail, and face. The top of his head and back are green. The throat is adorned with a patch of iridescent feathers, which appear dark brown when the bird is at rest.
But when he finds himself faced with an environmental aberrance (an iNaturalist photographer, for example) he angles those feathers just right to catch the light and the throat flashes a striking bright orange-red, warning everyone that he is the master of his territory and any who dares to intrude might experience his mighty wrath — all 3 grams of it!
iNaturalist user Peter R. Thomas was able to capture these striking colors in the series of shots from our observation of the month which can be viewed in their entirety at bit.ly/3neyP3h.
As with many other bird species, the female’s colors are more muted. The orange feathers are limited to a small part of the breast and undertail and the throat patch is much smaller. The rest of her feathers are mostly green, and she has a white breast.
During migration season, the Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), which is almost identical to the Allen’s Hummingbird, passes through San Diego. An experienced bird photographer knows to get a picture of the fanned tail feathers, which can help distinguish the two species. Bravo to Peter Thomas for documenting that feature as well.
The history of the Allen’s Hummingbird within San Diego County is quite fascinating. There are two different populations. One of them is migratory and passes through San Diego on its way to and from Ventura County and the mountains surrounding Mexico City. The other population is a rare example of an endemic Channel Island subspecies which retro-invaded the mainland, starting in 1966 on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County. From there, the population grew southward and reached San Diego County in 2001, where it has been living year-round ever since.
For more on the Allen’s Hummingbird, visit bit.ly/2LocS4c and visit nyti.ms/359kmPX to discover just how fierce hummingbirds have evolved to be.
—Patricia Simpson is a trial guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.