The Green-backed Firecrown (Sephanoides sephaniodes) is a stunningly beautiful hummingbird found in the Andes mountains of Chile and Argentina. With its brilliant emerald green back and crimson throat, this species is aptly named for its spectacular plumage.
The Green-backed Firecrown measures only 7-8 centimeters in length and weighs just 2-3 grams, making it one of the smallest hummingbird species in the world. The male has glossy emerald green upperparts from its back to uppertail coverts. The undersides are grayish white. The male’s throat and forehead blaze with fiery crimson, bordered below with grayish white stripes. The female is similar but less brilliantly colored, with more grayish-green upperparts and little to no red on the throat. Both sexes have slightly decurved black bills and dark eyes.
Distribution and Habitat
The Green-backed Firecrown has a relatively restricted range in the Andes mountains, found only in central Chile and adjacent western Argentina. Its breeding habitat consists primarily of mountain forests and woodlands dominated by Southern Beech and Monkey Puzzle trees, at elevations between 1000-3000 meters. In winter, some individuals migrate to lower elevations or valleys on the western slopes of the Andes.
Like all hummingbirds, the Green-backed Firecrown feeds on flower nectar and tiny insects. It favors flowers with tubular corollas where it can dip its long bill and extend its specialized tongue to lap up nectar. Some favorite nectar sources include plants like fuchsia, firebush, and skyrocket. The Firecrown also hawks small insects like flies, gnats, and aphids in flight. It is known for its swift and acrobatic flight while feeding, rapidly changing directions as it buzzes from flower to flower. The high-energy nectar provides fuel for hovering at blossoms and sustained fast flight.
Breeding and Nesting
The breeding season for Green-backed Firecrowns runs from October to January. Males perform elaborate courtship displays, flying in U-shaped patterns to impress females. Once paired, the female constructs a delicate cup nest out of plant fibers, spider webs, lichens and moss. She attaches this to a vertical branch, often near a waterfall. The female lays just two tiny white eggs and incubates them alone for about 16 days. Once hatched, both parents feed the chicks with regurgitated insect matter. The young fledge in 20-23 days but may still receive occasional feedings from the parents afterwards.
While still relatively common within its range, the Green-backed Firecrown is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Habitat loss from logging and agricultural development is the major threat facing this species. Climate change also poses a risk if plant communities shift too rapidly for this specialist bird to adapt. Additionally, browsing livestock may trample vegetation and nest sites. Continued protection of South American temperate rainforests will be crucial for securing the future of the Green-backed Firecrown and other endemic species.
The bright red throat patch of the male Green-backed Firecrown resembles a glowing firebrand, leading to its evocative common name. This fiery plumage has inspired admiration and legend among native South American peoples. The Mapuche people of Chile see the Firecrown as symbolizing warmth, energy, and bravery. Legends tell of it using its bill to carry embers from an ancient fire to bring warmth and firelight to humans. The Firecrown’s association with fire makes it a popular motif in textiles and crafts. Its depiction invokes vitality, passion, and the life-giving energy of nature.
With its diminutive size but dazzling coloration, the Green-backed Firecrown is a true jewel of the Andean forests. Protecting tracts of pristine temperate rainforest habitat will be key to preserving populations of this exquisite hummingbird species. Its cultural significance and delicate grace make it an iconic and beloved bird, both for native peoples and naturalists from around the world. Though small, the fiery Firecrown serves as an important flagship species for South American conservation.