The Blue-headed Sapphire Hummingbird (Cyanophrys cyanocephala) is a small hummingbird native to the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia in South America. Known for its vibrant blue crown and emerald green body, it is one of the most striking and beautiful hummingbird species in the world.
The adult male Blue-headed Sapphire has a brilliant, iridescent turquoise blue crown, nape and throat, with the rest of the body a shining emerald green. The female has a pale grayish crown and is duller in color overall. Both sexes have a slightly decurved black bill and white undertail coverts. They measure around 9-10 cm in length and weigh 4-7 grams.
The coloration of the male likely plays an important role in mating displays and establishing territory. The vibrant crown is very eye-catching and can signal dominance and fitness to potential mates. When excited or aggressive, the males will fan and flare their crown feathers, intensifying the dramatic blue color.
Habitat and Distribution
The Blue-headed Sapphire inhabits montane cloud forests and elfin forests at elevations of 1800-3300 meters above sea level. They are endemic to a small region of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador and Colombia. Their range extends from southwestern Colombia through eastern Ecuador.
They prefer high elevation tropical forests dense with flowering plants. These humid environments stay shrouded in cool mist and fog, with mosses and epiphytes clinging to the trees. The Blue-headed Sapphire favors areas with many cliff faces and cascading waterfalls.
Like all hummingbirds, the Blue-headed Sapphire has a rapid, hovering flight style and can fly backwards and upside down. This agile flying allows it to adeptly feed on nectar from a variety of brightly colored, tubular flowers. Some favorite food plants include the Incense Plant, Angel’s Trumpet, and various Heliconia species.
The long, specialized bill of the Blue-headed Sapphire perfectly matches the curved shape of these tropical flowers. While hovering in front of the blossom, the hummingbird sticks its long tongue deep into the flower to lap up the nectar. The bill is also used to capture tiny insects to supplement its diet with protein.
Males attract females through elaborate courtship displays. They fly in repeated U-shaped patterns, reaching speeds of 100 body lengths per second. If a female approves, she will mate with the male and build a tiny cup-shaped nest out of plant fibers and spider silk.
She incubates the two pea-sized eggs alone for about 16-19 days. Once hatched, the chicks are fed regurgitated insects and nectar by the female. They fledge in roughly 20-26 days, an incredibly short nesting period compared to other birds. Due to their small size, hummingbirds have a very fast metabolism and development rate.
Threats and Conservation
While still relatively common, the Blue-headed Sapphire does face some threats from habitat loss and climate change. Deforestation is shrinking its specialized high elevation habitat. As temperatures increase, the misty cloud forests are shifting higher up mountains, reducing available range.
Part of the species’ range lies within protected areas like Podocarpus National Park in Ecuador. Further habitat conservation and climate change mitigation efforts are needed to ensure the long-term survival of this unique highland hummingbird. Considered of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, increased monitoring of populations will be important going forward.
The vibrant colors and energetic nature of hummingbirds have made them highly symbolic in many indigenous cultures of the Andes. The Blue-headed Sapphire itself is culturally significant, believed by some groups to represent spiritual wisdom and magic. Its crown evokes the sky and its body the earth. To see one was considered very good fortune by the Inca.
This breeding endemic highlights the incredible diversity found in neotropical cloud forests. From its sapphire crown to buzzing wings, the Blue-headed Sapphire encapsulates the dazzling beauty of Andean hummingbirds. Conserving these misty mountain forests is crucial for protecting the endemic biodiversity found nowhere else on Earth. With their brightly hued colors, energetic flight and crucial pollination services, the Blue-headed Sapphire and its highland habitat showcase a magical corner of the natural world.