The Lucifer Hummingbird is a medium-sized purple-throated hummingbird that has a distinctive decurved bill and deeply forked tail. It is commonly found in northern and central Mexico. It is a highly sought species in the United States, with its rare appearances in New Mexico, west Texas, and extreme parts of southern Arizona. It belongs to a group of hummingbird species called “sheartails”, which makes a stark reference to their deeply forked, narrow tail.
The Lucifer Hummingbird grows to a length of 3.5 inches and weighs up to 3-4 grams. It is highly distinguished for its curved bill and narrow, forked tail. It also has a white streak behind its eyes. Its large head and heavy, down curved bill seem to be disproportionate with its tiny, tapered body. Its lengthy, narrow tail extends beyond the wingtips.
The adult males have a characteristic green back and a purple throat patch that appears darkish when not hit by light. The gorget’s color is quite similar to that of Costa’s hummingbird, although Costa’s have a heavier body, have purple feathers on the crown, and do not have the Lucifer’s long and narrow tail. The Lucifer Hummingbirds’ breast is dull and whitish.
Generally, the male Lucifer Hummingbird closely resembles the Black-chinned Hummingbird, except that the latter has a less extensive, clean-cut throat patch, and lacks a truly decurved bill.
The comparably larger adult females, on the other hand, have warm and buffy under parts and a green back. They have an intense cinnamon wash on the breast and throat. Compared to other similar hummingbird species, female Lucifer Hummingbirds have buffier under parts, particularly the breast and throat.
The juvenile male Lucifer Hummingbirds exhibit purple spotting on the throat in the late summer.
The Lucifer Hummingbird’s diet is mainly consists of the nectar of flowering desert plants and sugar solution in hummingbird feeders.
Among all the flowers, their favorite food sources are agave flowers. Agave flowers are adapted to be pollinated by bats. And because Lucifer Hummingbirds are too small to pick up pollen from the agave flowers, they get the nectar without returning a pollination service to the plant.
However, when agave flowers are not available, they opt for other flowers and plants. These include penstemon, a shrub known as anisacanth, paintbrushes, willow, trumpet flower, and cholla. While they love the nectar from ocotillo plants, they only get little nectar from them because of a standing competition with carpenter bees that pierce the flowers and steal the nectar from the bases.
Aside from flowers, they also feed on insects and spiders as a potent protein-source for the proper development of their young.
While they sometimes approach hummingbird feeders, their long rank among other species causes them to be chased off by other hummingbirds.
Distribution and Habitat
The preferred habitat locations of Lucifer Hummingbirds are dry canyons and hillsides of desert habitats that have ocotillo and century plant. They are also found in dry washes, and scrub with agave, cholla, sotol scrubs and cacti.
During the summer months, Lucifer Hummingbirds are often observed in Chihuahuan desert foothills, Ash Canyon, HuaHuachuca Mountains, southeast Arizona, or near Portal, Arizona, at elevations of about 3,500-5000 feet. Aside from these areas, the species’ breeding range includes Texas, in Big Bend National Park and in the Davis Mountains. They occur in the U.S. from March to September.
During winter, they move to central Mexico and live in scrubby habitats or pine-oak woodland or tropical deciduous forest canyons.
Behavior and Ecology
Lucifer Hummingbirds exhibit the natural flight movement of hummingbirds. they would hover to feed from flowers, dart into the air to catch insects, and zoom in straight lines from one place to another.
The male Lucifer Hummingbirds show territoriality in some patches of flowers from other males and females, and intrude Black-chinned Hummingbirds by chattering and chasing them. Female Lucifer Hummingbirds also exhibit the same territorial behavior in protecting their nesting locations.
Similar to other hummingbirds, male Lucifer Hummingbirds also exhibit courtship displays. However, instead of performing them near feeding areas, perches, or special sites, they perform it at the nest of the subject female. They would approach the female, quickly shuttle back and forth in horizontal movements in front of her, ascend to about 100 feet above, and suddenly dive. The dives would produce a rapid flicking sound caused by the wings or tail. The display would last for about 30-45 seconds and may be shown 5 times in an hour.
While these displays are quite interesting, they do not suggest any bonding formed between pairs. Indeed, males are polygamous in nature and would mate with different females.
The female takes about 10 days to 2 weeks to construct the nest. She would find a protected location on cholla, ocotillo, or lechuguilla plants on steep, dry, or rocky slopes. The nest is placed at a height of 2-10 feet above the ground. It is typically 1.8 inches across and 2.2 inches tall, and is made up of plant fibers that include oak catkins, flower down, dried grass, and twigs. The external parts of the nest are decorated with lichens and small leaves.
The average size of the female’s clutch is 2 eggs, which end up to 1 or 2 broods. The eggs are plain white and are 0.5 inches long.
The incubation period for the eggs runs up to 15 days. Upon hatching, the young Lucifers are helpless and do not have feathers, except for a line of down along the back. The nestling period is 22-24 days.
With Lucifer Hummingbirds’ appearance in just a few areas in southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, as well as throughout Mexico, the species’ global breeding population is estimated to be 200,000 only, with 100 percent living in Mexico, and 10 percent some months of the year in the U.S.
Conservationists are encouraging more participation on the conservation efforts of the species, as the Lucifer Hummingbird was included on the 2014 States of the Birds Watch List. However, it has a ‘Least Concern’ status in the IUCN Red List.
The efforts of hummingbird feeders, including those at Big Bend National Park, are applauded for maintaining the American populations of the species at a level higher than natural occurrence rates.