Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird
(Photo © HBSG, Inc.

(Stellula calliope)

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 Allen’s 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 it’s own survival strategies, based on stealth. Keeping a low profile and relying on sneakiness is the order of the day.

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!

Let’s talk about a description of this tiny hummer. Tiny pretty much sums up Calliope’s 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. Calliope’s 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 region.

© The Hummer/Bird Study Group, Inc. This site last updated 5/29/12