The Ecuadorian Hillstar (Oreotrochilus chimborazo) is a small hummingbird found exclusively in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador. With an average body length of 7-8 cm and weight of 2-3 grams, it is a relatively petite hummingbird, though still larger than the tiny bees and insects it feeds on. The Ecuadorian hillstar inhabits elevations between 3000-4800 meters, thriving in the cool, windswept paramo grasslands and scrublands of the high Andes.
The Ecuadorian hillstar has vibrant green upperparts and glittering purple-magenta undertail coverts, a combination unique among Andean hummingbirds. The green back and crown fade to gray on the head and tail. The underparts are cinnamon-rufous colored on the throat and breast, with a white belly. The long black bill, adapted for feeding on nectar at long tubular flowers, curves slightly downward. The wings are rounded and shaped for agile hovering flight. The male and female hillstars are similar in plumage, though the colorful throat and breast feathers of the male are slightly more iridescent.
Like all hummingbirds, the Ecuadorian hillstar has a swift, hovering flight capable of backwards and upside-down movement. This allows it to efficiently feed on nectar from flowers while hovering inches away. Its long bill and tongue are perfectly adapted to extract nectar. The hillstar prefers flowers with long, tubular corollas, using its specialized bill to probe deep inside the blossoms. Some of its favorite nectar sources include species of Salvia, Datura, Ipomopsis, Castilleja, and various giant rosette plants. The hillstar supplements its diet with small insects like gnats, flies, and spiders, catching them in midair or picking them off vegetation.
Reproduction and Behavior
The breeding season for the Ecuadorian hillstar corresponds to the Andean wet season between October and February. During courtship, the male performs an elaborate hovering dance for the female, flying in arcs and circles above her while waving his colorful wings and tail. If she accepts him, the pair mate and the female builds a tiny cup nest out of soft plant fibers and spider webs, attaching it to a vertical stalk on a sheltered section of scrub.
She lays just two tiny white eggs, incubating them for about 2 weeks. The chicks hatch with eyes closed and almost devoid of feathers. Both parents share duties feeding the chicks by regurgitating nectar and insects directly into their mouths. The chicks fledge in about a month but may still beg food from their parents for another couple weeks.
Ecuadorian hillstars are solitary birds that defend their nectar-rich territory from intruders. They emit high-pitched squeaking vocalizations to communicate and advertise territory ownership. While defending resources, they may dive aggressively at intruders with a burst of speed, though actual contact is rare. Despite their small size, Ecuadorian hillstars are feisty and consume up to twice their body weight in nectar each day! Their high metabolism and rapid flight require large amounts of food.
With its restricted range limited to a narrow belt of Andean highlands in Ecuador, the Ecuadorian hillstar is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Climate change poses a threat as warming trends push the bird’s specialized high-elevation habitat higher up mountain slopes. Drier weather also reduces nectar availability in its native flowers. Other threats include overgrazing by livestock, spread of nonnative plant species, and habitat loss. Eco-tourism and birdwatching provide incentives for habitat conservation. More research is needed on population numbers and breeding success rates. Careful monitoring of climate impacts will be important going forward.
The unique Ecuadorian hillstar is exquisitely adapted to the harsh conditions of the high Andes. Its specialized bill,hovering flight, and diet of nectar and insects allow it to thrive in the paramo ecosystems above treeline. Males perform elaborate courtship dances to impress females. Though territorial and feisty, these tiny hummingbirds weigh only grams. While Near Threatened, climate change impacts on its restricted habitat make future monitoring and conservation actions important. The brilliant, glittering Ecuadorian hillstar remains a symbol of the fragile beauty of Andean ecosystems.