The Mexican violetear (Colibri thalassinus) is a medium-sized hummingbird found in Mexico, Central America, and parts of the southwestern United States. With its vibrant green plumage and distinctive violet “ears,” this species is one of the most colorful and easily recognizable hummingbirds in North America.
The Mexican violetear typically measures 6.5-7.5 cm (2.5-3 in) in length and weighs around 5-7 grams. As its name suggests, the most striking feature of its plumage is the vivid violet or purple patch found behind each eye that gives the appearance of “ears.” The throat and breast are an iridescent emerald green that transitions into a bright green forehead and crown. The back and tail coverts are a rich bronze-green. The undertail is mostly white with green tips on the outer feathers. The tail itself is black with an emerald sheen. The bill of the Mexican violetear is straight, long and black. The legs and feet are also blackish.
Males and females have similar plumage, although females may have slightly less violet behind the eyes. Immature birds resemble adults, but with buffer edges to the green and violet plumage. Overall, the vibrant plumage of the Mexican violetear, especially the unique violet ear patches, makes it relatively easy to identify among North American hummingbird species.
Range and Habitat
The Mexican violetear inhabits a large range stretching from central Mexico south as far as Panama. Its range extends into the southwestern United States in southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas. It is generally found along the Pacific Coast, as well as throughout coastal mountains and nearby arid regions.
This species occupies a wide variety of habitats within its broad range, including pine-oak forests, tropical deciduous forest, thornscrub, deserted farmland, parks, and gardens. The Mexican violetear can be found from sea level up to elevations around 7,600 feet. It prefers warmer, drier areas and is often found in canyons and valleys. Within its habitat, the violetear seeks out areas rich in flowers and flowering trees. It is one of the most heat-tolerant hummingbird species.
Food and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, the Mexican violetear subsists primarily on floral nectar from blooming flowers and flowering trees. Some favorite food sources include lantana, fuchsia, citrus blossoms, and eucalyptus. The long, specialized bill of the violetear allows it to access nectar from tubular flowers. This species prefers red or orange flowers with ample amounts of nectar.
The Mexican violetear supplements its diet with small insects like gnats, mosquitoes, flies and spiders. It tends to prefer feeding at flowering trees over lower-growing plants and will aggressively chase other hummingbirds away from its preferred feeding sites. It has a quick, straight flight with rapid wingbeats. The violetear can hover in place while drinking nectar and sometimes steals from flower corollas by piercing holes near the base.
The Mexican violetear is somewhat aggressive for a hummingbird. Males will actively chase other males from their feeding territory as well as females they are not courting. They perform display dives to impress females and compete with other males. In addition to vocal chattering, males may also grip females by the nape of the neck during courtship displays.
Outside of the breeding season, this species prefers higher elevations and is somewhat nomadic. It migrates altitudinally depending on the availability of flowers and food sources, moving to higher elevations in summer and lower elevations in winter. At times large numbers may congregate in areas of plentiful flowers and food.
The Mexican violetear can be curious and approachable around humans. However, it may also aggressively chase other hummingbirds away from feeders in residential areas. This boldness gives it dominance over food sources around human habitation.
The breeding season of the Mexican violetear depends on its range, occurring between November to June in Mexico and February to May in the United States. Males perform elaborate courtship flights, flying in wide arcs and circles and rapidly climbing before diving straight down. If a female perches nearby, the male may fan and spread his tail during these displays.
After mating, the female builds a small cup nest out of plant fibers, spider webs, and lichens. She attaches this to a downward hanging branch, often near water. The nest itself is only about 2.5 cm across and blends extremely well into surrounding vegetation. The female lays two small white eggs which incubate for 15 to 19 days before hatching. Both parents help feed the young through regurgitation. The offspring will fledge about 3 weeks after hatching.
Due to its extremely large range and stable population trend, the Mexican violetear is evaluated as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Specific estimates of its global population do not exist, but its numbers are presumed to be well into the millions. It has proven able to adapt well to human disturbances and modified habitats in many areas. As long as suitable habitat exists, its population is expected to remain secure.
Significance to Humans
The colorful plumage and energetic behavior of the Mexican violetear make it a favorite among birdwatchers across its range. This species will visit feeders meant to attract hummingbirds, providing an opportunity for close observation. It is also useful for pollinating gardens and agricultural crops.
Some threats to local populations include overgrazing, development, logging and illegal trapping for the pet trade. Providing nectar feeders and preserving natural areas with tubular flowers and flowering trees can help support these vibrant hummingbirds. With a range spanning from the southwestern United States through Mexico and Central America, the Mexican violetear remains one of the most eye-catching and easily identifiable of the North American hummingbird species. Its unique beauty and resilience have earned it an important place in the natural heritage of the Americas.