(Photo © HBSG, Inc.
By Bob Sargent
(excerpt from Netlines,
the official poop sheet of the Hummer/Bird Study Group)
Sometimes I get a chance to talk
about my very favorite hummingbird in the whole universe.
Well this is the one.
I know that in the past I have told you that my favorite
was Rufous or Allens or Black-chinned or some other
beautiful creature, but really this is the one. Calliope
is the smallest of all the hummingbirds in North America.
It is dainty and somewhat shy, but is able to get along quite
well in the presence of such bully-boys as Rufous, Broad-tailed
and others. Over the eons, this mighty-mite has developed
its own survival strategies, based on stealth. Keeping
a low profile and relying on sneakiness is the order of the
In the presence of other hummingbird
species, Calliope tends to spend much of its time hiding
out in the bushes
and flowers. In the mountains of the west, I have observed
them staking out small patches of flowers. Instead
of always perching up high on a bare twig and dive-bombing
intruders, they often perch low on the stems of the blooming
plant. If they attack the intruder at all, it is likely to
be a surprise attack from below. More often, they just let
the other bird feed undisturbed. If the Calliope is an adult
male, he likely to be a bit more aggressive in defending
his territory. Lacking the body mass and noisy armament of
some of their competitors, they still are quite successful
using this lower profile strategy.
Surprisingly, our study of wintering hummingbirds in the
east includes a fairly high percentage of these sprites.
For instance, so far in the winter of 1997-1998 we have captured
and banded five Calliopes. Two of these were banded in Alabama
and one each in Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee! The Tennessee
Calliope was their first ever and was captured in Nashville.
In addition to these actually captured, two others were field
identified, but eluded our capture methods. In winter in
the Eastern U.S., Calliopes exhibit much of the same low
profile strategy. We most often find them hanging-out in
dense cover such as vines and evergreen shrubbery. In the
Gulf Coast area, where they are apparently more common in
winter, they love the dense cover of Camellias, Azaleas,
Wax Myrtles, Yaupon and similar shrubs. They are remarkably
hard to find unless you observe them in the act of feeding!
Lets talk about a description
of this tiny hummer. Tiny
pretty much sums up Calliopes general description. If
you are from the eastern U.S., use Ruby-throated as your
yardstick for comparison. If you live out west, use Black-chinned
for comparison. Calliope is roughly 2/3rds the size of
these two more common species! Calliope is a dainty and
very graceful appearing imp, with a super-short tail. Starting
with the bill, everything seems miniaturized. The bill
of Calliope is best described as needle-like in appearance.
It is thin and almost straight. On very rare occasions,
you may find an individual with a slightly decurved bill.
The slender bill does not gain a great deal in diameter
from the tip inward until it approaches the base. It is
short, and lacks much of the more bulbous tip found in
many hummingbird species. This short and rounded thin bill
serves the more shy Calliope well. It enables this diminutive
beauty to feed at the tiniest of blossoms. Not only for
the wee droplets of nectar they produce, but more importantly,
it gives him access to the smaller insects that also exploit
these smaller flowers.
The head of a Calliope hummingbird
could only be described as dainty and graceful in appearance.
In comparison to Calliope,
most other hummer species look coarse and unrefined.
Calliopes forehead and crown are shimmering green when
new, and can often be seen to ruffle and stand erect when
agitated. This crown is often stained brown or brownish-gray
from repeatedly feeding with the whole head stuck deep inside
the blossoms of larger flowers. The short bill and dainty
head make it a simple matter for Calliope to feed in a variety
of flower sizes.
One of the most distinguishing features
of a Calliope is the back color. It tends to be a much
more pale green than
most other hummingbirds and has a distinctive bluish luster
that plays about on the back as the bird moves.
This bluish-green back can have a distinctive scalloped appearance
The tail of Calliope appears to have been almost an afterthought.
It is as though the only feathers left during the creation
were some half-size ones that were unused when the other
species were being built. These super short rectrices appear
very wide for their short length. The sides of the basal
portion of these feathers are often bordered with a tinted
arc of color ranging form almost brick red to rufous to pale
pink to gray. In addition, some of these feathers with the
colored edgings will have constricted areas in their width,
giving them a slight hourglass shape. The tips of these feathers
in females and immatures are tipped broadly with pure white.
In the field and at your feeders, the extremely small tail
is one of the best indicators that the bird being observed
may be a Calliope.
The underparts of Calliope are one of the more distinctive
features. The sides, flanks and breast can be a wide range
of colors. The basic color, to my eye, is always buff.
Probably depending on age and sex, this can be tinged from
very pale pink to tannish to a startling rich and pure dynamite
buff that takes your breath away! Those feathers covering
the underside of the base of the tail feathers (undertail
coverts) will likely have a pale creamy-buff appearance.
The throat of an immature Calliope of either sex will be
whitish with a series of dusky green dots arranged in rows.
These rows will sometimes look slightly bronze toned, and
will radiate out from the chin to become wider as they terminate
at the lower throat and upper breast.
An adult male Calliope is no challenge to identify, but
here is a description to refresh you. The throat will be
arrayed with streaks of brilliant iridescence. This iridescence
will be a gaudy series of purplish-red rays that fan out
from the chin. The individual feathers that make up the gorget
of Calliope can be very elongated! Unlike immatures and females,
the tail feathers will be all dark and will likely be edged
near the base with dull, brick red. Although our experience
with adult males in the east is very limited, it would appear
that they are a bit more aggressive in defending wintering
territories. In the presence of competing species, even the
adult males use the same feeding strategy as females and
immatures. In my opinion, they tend to be poachers! They
appear to be content to watch the feeders and flowers closely
and slip in for a quick nip after the bullies feed and depart.
Where blooming plants are part of the mix, Calliope are masters
at quietly feeding on the lowest blossoms then sinking slowly
down among the stems of the flower to perch and hide. They
remind me of bream rising to surface of a lake to feed, then
slowly sinking back down deep to hide and wait in ambush.
Although our experience with Calliope in the winter is
limited, our every expanding research is beginning to offer
some tantalizing hints. Probably the most prominent of these
is the suggestion that they may be a lot more prevalent
in winter than we earlier imagined. Our first documentation
of Calliope here was really considered radical stuff. Now
most birders in the region have seen this species, thanks
to the work of our crew. Apparently we misjudged how many
were actually here. This will not be the last time we are
off base. The great thing about not getting paid for this
work is you can be wrong and not lose your job. I think that
being a field ornithologist really has some great
advantages. Another teaser regarding Calliope is the irruptive
nature of the species. Some years they are relatively abundant,
then like last year, not a single Calliope is found in the