Spring brings the Black-chinned Hummingbird back to New Mexico for us to marvel at.
Story and photos by Jay W. Sharp
Just an ordinary bird? Well, that's what some of the experts appear to suggest.
"There are few superlatives to describe the Black-chinned Hummingbird," said William H. Baltosser and Stephen M. Russell in the authoritative The Birds of North America Online. It is "a small green-backed hummingbird of the West, with no brilliant colors on its throat except a thin strip of iridescent purple bordering the black chin, only visible when light hits it just right," according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "Females are similar to a number of other female hummingbirds," observes the US Geological Survey.
So, ho hum, we'll just have do the best that we can with what we've got in talking about the Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), which should be returning to southern New Mexico from its winter quarters right about now.
From the base of its straight black bill to the base of its tail, the Black-chinned Hummingbird measures roughly the length of your thumb. From the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail, it measures some 4.75 inches. From tip to tip of its expanded wings, it measures approximately 5.75 inches. Typically, the bird weighs just over a tenth of an ounce, a little more than a penny.
While the bird's features vary somewhat with its geographic location, the adult male usually has a metallic green head and back, the trademark inky-black chin, an iridescent violet throat (or gorget), a white upper chest, a grayish belly, greenish central tail feathers and dark- and white-tipped outer tail feathers. The adult female has a duller metallic green head and back, a grayish and spotted (sometimes striped) throat and belly, and dark- and white-tipped tail feathers. Young Black-chinned Hummingbirds of both sexes resemble the adult female. Both the young and the females, with their indistinct markings, often pose problems in identification.
The bird produces an array of sounds, according to authorities quoted by Baltosser and Russell. For instance, during the "dive display" courting ritual, the male produces "a long-drawn, pulsating, plaintive, liquid note." Rarely, it appears, the male may sing, its voice sounding — not quite like Luciano Pavarotti — but more like a "high-pitched warble, like the sound produced as a result of whistling through the teeth." It has not revealed the precise biological purpose of its song.
Distribution, Habitat & Migrations
The Black-chinned Hummingbird — supremely adaptable, far ranging and resilient — has laid claim to an extensive territory. Since it moves in wide and changeable scatters rather than in concentrated flocks, the bird has proven difficult to track as it changes locations, even across relatively small areas.
Primarily this hummer breeds, during the warmer seasons, from the southwestern Canadian provinces southeastward across most of the western United States to the Texas Gulf Coast. It breeds and winters throughout the year in north-central Mexico. It winters in northwestern Mexico along the coastal states extending from the Gulf of California to Guadalajara and Morelia. (The bird has been reported in the United States, say Baltosser and Russell, as far southeast as Florida and as far northeast as Massachusetts.)
Across its range, the Black-chinned Hummingbird occupies widely diverse habitats, varying in elevation from a few hundred feet below sea level (in the Mojave Desert) to more than 8,000 feet above sea level (across various mountain ranges). In the region encompassing southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona specifically, it breeds and nests in fairly open areas as well as in canyon bottoms and riverine environments of the desert basins and in the oak and juniper forests of the lower mountain slopes. It has also adapted to urban areas, especially those where gardening and irrigation have produced stands of trees as well as vines and shrubs with flowers. In its Mexican winter ranges, the Black-chinned Hummingbird turns up, according to Baltosser and Russell, in habitats such as mangrove forests, pine-oak-fir forests, tropical dry deciduous forests, arid thorn forests, riparian gallery forests and heavily shaded tall-tree forests.
Led by the males, the bird begins its southward migration toward northwestern Mexico — the wintering ground for many US and Canadian Black-chinned Hummer populations — in mid- to late summer and early fall, with exact destinations and arrival times often poorly understood. It turns back northward, again led by the males, retracing its autumn route, in late winter and early spring, arriving in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona in March and April and in British Columbia by May.
The migrating bird may travel considerable distances. An adult male banded on July 6, 1988, in southeastern Arizona was captured and released on its wintering area near Chamela in western Jalisco on April 21, 1991, report Baltosser and Russell. The distance between southeastern Arizona and Chamela equals at least 800 miles.
Reflecting its adaptability, the Black-chinned Hummer feeds on the nectar from flowers of a wide diversity of towering as well as low-growing plants, with the species varying by location and habitat. While dining, it hovers for just moments before the bloom, inserting its long grooved tongue into the corolla and rapidly lapping up the nectar. It often pays for its meal by pollinating the plant. In southwestern New Mexico, the bird favors, for a few examples, the blooms of agaves, penstemons, paintbrush and ocotillo. In our urban neighborhoods, it loves the blooms of trumpet vines, cherry sage and lantana. Generally, it seems to prefer blooms with a trumpet shape.
The bird also preys on insects and small spiders, which provide an important source of protein during the time of nesting and at the end of the flowering season. It takes insects in flight, especially when they swarm. It may also pluck insects from plants, cracks and crevices. It may take a spider directly from the web.
If blooms and prey run short, the male may mount a strong defense of its feeding territory, often with vigorous pursuits of encroachers. Evidently, the female and juveniles spend less effort in defending their feeding territories, even in trying times.
During cooler weather and given sufficient food sources, the bird may eat voraciously. It may consume, for instance, three times its weight in nectar during the course of a chilly day, according to the whatBird.com Internet site.