Broad-tailed Hummingbird Species

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) is a medium-sized hummingbird native to the Rocky Mountains and surrounding regions of western North America. Known for its iridescent reddish-pink body, white breast feathers, and distinctive metallic trilling song, the broad-tailed hummingbird is one of the most recognizable hummingbird species in North America.

Physical Description

The broad-tailed hummingbird measures 3 to 4 inches in length, with males typically being slightly larger than females. It has a wingspan of 4.5 inches. As its name suggests, the broad-tailed hummingbird has a broad, rounded tail that can appear almost fan-shaped in flight. The male has iridescent reddish-pink plumage on its back, sides, belly and flanks, along with a brilliant magenta-red throat patch (gorget). When the light hits just right, the male’s plumage can shine with dazzling fire-like brilliance. The female is similarly colored, though her reddish gorget is often smaller and duller. Both sexes have white breast feathers. The bill of the broad-tailed hummingbird is straight and all black. Juvenile birds resemble adult females.

Geographic Range

The broad-tailed hummingbird is found predominantly in the Rocky Mountains, frequenting meadows, mountain forests and stream banks at elevations between 5,000 and 12,000 feet. Its breeding range extends from southern British Columbia and Alberta in the north, to southern Arizona and New Mexico in the south. It migrates for the winter months to Mexico. Though most common in the higher elevation mountain regions, the broad-tailed hummingbird may also be found in foothills, canyons and valleys, particularly during migration. Its preferred habitat is forest and woodland areas with ample flowers, nectar sources and nesting sites.


Like all hummingbirds, the broad-tailed hummingbird has a very fast metabolism and high energy demands. It meets these demands by feeding on flower nectar and small insects and spiders. Its long, extendable tongue allows it to access nectar deep within tubular flowers. Typical flower sources include columbine, larkspur, red currant, gooseberry, honeysuckle, and various wildflowers. To obtain protein from insects, the broad-tailed hummingbird hawks flying insects out of the air or gleans them from leaves and branches. Small spiders and aphids supplement its diet. The broad-tailed hummingbird feeds frequently throughout the day, visiting hundreds of flowers to get its required nutrition. It prefers red tubular flowers with no scent.

Unique Adaptations

The broad-tailed hummingbird possesses specialized anatomical adaptations that allow it to hover and fly swiftly from flower to flower. Its wings can beat up to 55 times per second, generating the aerodynamic lift necessary for sustained hovering. Other adaptations include a swift metabolism that can convert sugar into energy quickly, a long, specially-adapted tongue for drinking nectar, and tiny feather-like fringes on its wings that muffle the sound of air rushing over its wings. The broad-tailed hummingbird is a surprisingly aggressive and territorial bird, vigorously defending feeding areas from intruders. It uses aerial displays and chasing to drive away competitors.

Mating and Reproduction

The breeding season for broad-tailed hummingbirds extends from May through August. As part of the elaborate mating ritual, the male performs a courtship display called a dive display, flying back and forth in a wide U shape, with the wings trilling loudly during the dives. If a watching female perches, the male takes this as a sign of interest. He may then fly in repeated small circles around her. Mating occurs if the female allows the male to perch beside her briefly. The female constructs a delicate cup-shaped nest out of plant down, spider webs, and lichens on the upper branches of a conifer tree. Two white eggs are laid and incubated for 15-16 days. The eggs hatch asynchronously. The female cares for the chicks without any assistance from the male. The chicks fledge in about 20-26 days.


Broad-tailed hummingbirds migrate south to Mexico for the winter. They may travel alone or in small groups. Migration takes place between August and September, and again in the spring between April and May. Amazingly, these tiny birds are capable of flying nonstop 500-mile journeys across the Gulf of Mexico. Their route back north in the spring closely mirrors the fall migration path south. The timing of migration seems to be influenced by weather and availability of food sources rather than changes in day length. Males usually arrive at the breeding grounds first to establish prime nesting territories.

Threats and Conservation

Broad-tailed hummingbird populations are relatively stable currently, with an estimated global population of about 3.5 million. However, these birds do face some threats such as habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, window collisions, and predation. Maintaining protected forest and meadow habitats is crucial. Providing nectar feeders with red sugar-water solution can help supplement food needs, especially during migration. Cats allowed outdoors can prey heavily on visiting hummingbirds. Preventing window collisions through visual markers is also important. The broad-tailed hummingbird is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Currently, the IUCN Red List categorizes this species as Least Concern.

Fun Facts

– The metallic trilling song the male broad-tailed hummingbird makes with his wings can reach 106 decibels, one of the loudest sounds relative to body size in the bird world. Females lack this trilling ability.

– Hummingbirds have the fastest metabolism of all animals. To conserve energy overnight, broad-tailed hummingbirds can lower their body temperature and heart rate dramatically, entering a hibernation-like state called torpor.

– The genus name Selasphorus means “flame bearer” in Greek, an apt name for these brilliance-colored hummingbirds.

– A group of hummingbirds has special collective names including a “glittering” of hummingbirds or a “tune” of hummingbirds.

– Broad-tailed hummingbird feathers generate iridescent color not from pigments, but from microscopic structures that refract light.

– Hummingbirds can see ultraviolet light, helping them find nectar guides on flowers. Their eyes also have more cones than rods, an adaptation for daytime vision.

– Broad-tailed hummingbird eggs are only about half an inch long – the smallest of all bird eggs relative to adult size. Incubation lasts 15-16 days.

– Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards. They do so by pointing their beak upward and flapping their wings normally.

– These hummingbirds get protein from small insects like gnats, fruit flies, spiders, and aphids. They may eat over a thousand tiny insects every day.

– The broad-tailed hummingbird is named for the males’ broad, rounded tail. In flight, the tail can appear fan-shaped, while perched it looks squared-off at the end.

– To conserve energy overnight, a broad-tailed hummingbird enters torpor, lowering its body temperature by up to 33oF and slowing its heart rate from 500 beats per minute down to around 50-180 beats per minute.

– Nests are made of soft plant down, bound together with spider silk and lichens. They stretch as the chicks grow.

– Broad-tailed hummingbirds breed predominantly in conifer forests. Nest sites are usually along overhanging branches of trees along creeks and rivers.

– These hummingbirds can lick nectar up to 13 times per second, using their specialized bifurcated tongue.

– During courtship displays, the male flies in repeated U-shaped arcs, diving and ascending rapidly while trilling loudly.

– Broad-tailed hummingbirds have excellent memories and can remember every flower they visit, not returning to a depleted flower for up to 48 hours.

– To signal aggression and defend territory, male broad-tailed hummingbirds perform dive displays, flying in U-shapes and making loud twittering and chip notes.

– Broad-tailed hummingbird hearts beat up to 1,260 times per minute and their wings flap around 55 times per second in normal flight.

– These hummingbirds can fly up to 35 miles per hour. Their wings turn in a full circle so they can fly not only forward but also backward, upside down, sideways, and hover in place.

In summary, the broad-tailed hummingbird is a remarkable species perfectly adapted to accessing floral nectar and flying swiftly between blooms. Its flashy colors and acrobatic flight make this high-energy hummingbird a favorite backyard visitor for many in the Rocky Mountains. With proper habitat conservation measures and reduction of threats, these iconic birds will hopefully continue thriving across western North America.