The Green Inca Hummingbird (Coeligena wilsoni) is a small hummingbird native to the Andes Mountains in South America. With its vibrant green plumage and long, curved bill, the Inca Hummingbird is a jewel-like addition to the diverse avifauna of the region.
The Green Inca Hummingbird is one of over 300 species of hummingbirds found in the New World. Hummingbirds are unique among birds for their ability to hover in midair and fly backwards and upside down. Their name comes from the characteristic hum made by their rapid wing beats, which can reach over 50 beats per second. Hummingbirds have the fastest metabolism of any vertebrate and must consume nectar frequently to fuel their high energy lifestyle.
The Inca Hummingbird is medium-small among hummingbirds, reaching about 3.5 inches in length and weighing around 5 grams. The male has glossy emerald green upperparts and underparts, with whitish tips on the tail feathers. The female is less vibrantly colored, with greenish upperparts and greyish white underparts. In both sexes, the long slender bill curves slightly downward and ends in a sharp point ideal for accessing nectar from flowers.
Taxonomy and Classification
The Green Inca Hummingbird is placed in the genus Coeligena, which includes about five other hummingbird species, all limited to the Andes region of South America. Coeligena hummingbirds are mid-sized with elongated bills and colorful iridescent plumage. Within the genus, the Green Inca Hummingbird is classified as the sole member of the wilsoni species. It was first described scientifically by the French ornithologist Jules Bourcier in 1851. The bird was named in honor of the American ornithologist Alexander Wilson.
The Green Inca Hummingbird is considered to be closely related to the colorful Inca hummingbirds of genus Ensifera. Together, these Andean hummingbirds form a clade that likely evolved from lowland forest species adapting to high elevation habitats in the Andes. There are no recognized subspecies of the Green Inca Hummingbird currently.
The vivid green plumage makes the male Green Inca Hummingbird very distinctive and unlikely to be confused with any other Andean hummingbird. Females and juveniles can be trickier to identify, but they can be recognized by their overall green plumage, white-tipped outer tail feathers, whitish underside, and long curved bill. In poor lighting conditions, the female Inca Hummingbird could potentially be confused with other emerald-colored mountain hummingbirds, like the Blue-throated Starfrontlet. However, details of size, bill shape, and tail feathers should help distinguish it upon closer observation.
To identify a Green Inca Hummingbird, the following field marks can be used:
– Male has unmistakable bright emerald green plumage on the head, back, rump, wings, and tail. Throat and breast are velvety green. Undertail coverts are whitish. Outer tail feathers have white tips.
– Female has duller green upperparts and greyish white underparts. Tail feathers are green with white tips.
– Both sexes have a long decurved bill, dark in color with pale base of lower mandible. Bill length almost equals head length.
– Juveniles resemble adult female but with buffy edges to back and wing feathers.
– Total length about 3.5 inches. Larger than a bee but smaller than a sparrow.
– Wings are short and rounded compared to other hummingbirds.
– Call is a high thin twittering.
Distribution and Habitat
The Green Inca Hummingbird is endemic to a relatively small region of the central Andes in South America. Its breeding range extends through the Andes mountains of Peru, Bolivia, and extreme northern Chile and Argentina. The northern limits are southeastern Peru and the southern limit is northwest Argentina.
This species is found at elevations between 10,000 and 15,000 feet above sea level. It occurs in alpine scrub habitat and grasslands just below the tree line. Typical vegetation includes shrubs, dwarf trees, and giant rosette plants, many of which produce nectar-bearing flowers favored by the hummingbirds.
In the southern part of its range, the Green Inca may migrate downward in elevation to as low as 6500 feet during the nonbreeding season. But throughout most of its range it appears to be resident year-round in its high elevation habitat, enduring the harsh conditions even through winter.
Behavior and Ecology
The Green Inca Hummingbird, like all hummingbirds, feeds on floral nectar and tiny insects and spiders. It uses its specialized tubular tongue to lap up nectar while hovering in front of flowers. Preferred plants include the red-flowered alpine shrubs Chuquiraga and Barnadesia as well as various giant rosette plants and cacti. The long bill of the Inca Hummingbird is adapted for accessing nectar from long Andean flowers. Insects are captured in flight or gleaned from foliage to provide essential proteins.
This hummingbird is territorial, with males defending flower-rich feeding areas from intrusion by other males through chasing and vocalizations. Courtship displays by males include flying in U-shaped or figure-eight patterns, along with shuttle flights back and forth in front of females.
The Green Inca breeds between October and March. The small cup-shaped nest is constructed by the female using soft plant down bound with spider silk. It is placed on a rock ledge or other sheltered location and camouflaged with lichens. Two white eggs are laid. The female alone incubates the eggs and cares for the nestlings. She shelters the nestlings at night and during cold weather by sitting on them and covering them with her wings.
The Green Inca Hummingbird has a relatively broad range and large total population. Its population numbers are believed to be stable currently, so the species is evaluated as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. However, some localized declines have possibly occurred, and there are potential threats from climate change decreasing flower availability. Continued monitoring of populations will be important for the long-term outlook of this range restricted hummingbird. Any expansion of agriculture or development in the Andes at very high elevations could also put pressure on its specialized habitat. Ecotourism focused responsibly on observing these exquisite birds could aid in further conservation efforts.
The brilliant emerald plumage of the male Green Inca has made this species iconic and sought after by birders who venture into the high Andes. One of just a few bird species found only in the ???sky islands??? of the Andean alpine zone, seeing a Green Inca is a memorable highlight of a birding trip to the central Andes. This species has also been depicted in Andean art and handicrafts.
The Inca hummingbirds seem to have held special significance in Pre-Columbian cultures of the Andes region, as evidenced by their frequent representation in artifacts, textiles, and pottery. The shimmering green color was associated with positive concepts like fertility and life. Hummingbirds sometimes depicted in ceremonial headdresses may have symbolized the spiritual world or afterlife. Continued cultural connections likely contribute to an appreciation of the unique biodiversity of this region.
The Green Inca Hummingbird remains an enigmatic jewel of the high Andes, captivating with its vibrant plumage but requiring challenging mountain ascents to observe in the wild. While currently stable in population, this range-limited species faces potential threats from climate change and habitat loss. Its adaptation to the harsh conditions and unique flowering plants of its alpine home make it a fascinating subject of evolution and specialization. Careful stewardship of these sky island ecosystems will be needed to ensure a future for the Green Inca and its Andean companions. With increased ecotourism and conservation attention, the future looks bright for this emerald jewel on the roof of South America.