Scintillant Hummingbird Species

The Scintillant Hummingbird (Selasphorus scintilla) is a small hummingbird species found in western North America. With its vibrant plumage that seems to shimmer in the sunlight, the Scintillant hummingbird is aptly named. At just 3-3.5 inches long and 2-4 grams in weight, it is one of the smallest hummingbirds in North America. Despite its tiny size, the Scintillant packs a lot of dazzle into its petite frame.


The adult male Scintillant hummingbird has bright, iridescent plumage in shades of green and red that shine and flash in the sunlight, giving the bird a sparkling appearance. The crown and throat are brilliant metallic red, while the back and undersides are emerald green. The tail is mostly rufous-red, with some darker tail feathers tipped in black, white and grey. The long bill is straight and black. Females lack the flashy plumage of the males and are duller green above and greyish white below with white tips on the tail feathers. The differences in appearance between the sexes is referred to as sexual dimorphism, and is common among hummingbird species. Juveniles resemble adult females.

In flight, the scintillant hummingbird has rapid and erratic wing beats that allow it to hover and change directions instantly as it feeds on nectar. The wings make a distinct buzzing or humming sound in flight, which gives rise to the name “hummingbird.” The scintillant gets its common name from its shimmering plumage that seems to sparkle brightly in the light.

Range and Habitat

The Scintillant hummingbird has a breeding range along the Pacific Coast of North America from British Columbia in Canada south through Washington, Oregon and California. Some individuals may migrate as far south as Baja California in Mexico for the winter months. They are summer residents of the Pacific Northwest, arriving in the spring to breed after migrating from southern wintering grounds.

These tiny birds occupy a range of habitats within their breeding zones, including meadows, mountain pine forests, sagebrush, chaparral, and parks and gardens. They occur at elevations up to 10,000 feet in mountainous areas. Abundant nectar-producing flowers are a key habitat requirement for scintillant hummingbirds during the breeding season.

Food and Feeding

Like all hummingbirds, the Scintillant hummingbird has a swift metabolism and must feed frequently to fuel its high energy lifestyle. Flower nectar provides the main source of food. The long, specially adapted tongue allows the bird to lap up nectar as it hovers near the flower. Favorite nectar sources include columbine, paintbrush, penstemon, larkspur, bee balm, fuchsia, and flowering currants. The scintillant will also drink sap from wells made by sapsuckers and can make its own sap wells.

Small insects and spiders are also important sources of food for meeting nutritional needs and for feeding young. The scintillant hummingbird hawks flying insects by sallying out from a perch. Prey is also gleaned from flowers, leaves, bark or plucked from spider webs.

Behavior and Breeding

The Scintillant Hummingbird is solitary and territorial, aggressively defending feeding areas from intrusions by other individuals. Males perform aerial displays during the breeding season to court females and advertise territory, ascending rapidly then diving while making u-shaped or pendulum patterns. High-pitched chattering notes accompany the display flight.

Pairs form briefly for mating and nest building. The tiny cup-shaped nest is constructed entirely by the female, who uses soft plant down and spider webs to bind together materials like moss, lichen and buds lined with down feathers. Nest sites may be located along a horizontal branch or on a vertical limb, generally 3 to 15 feet off the ground. The female alone incubates the 1-3 tiny white eggs for 15-18 days, and cares for the hatchlings. Young scintillants leave the nest at 18-26 days after hatching, but may return occasionally for a few days after fledging.

Conservation Status

Abundant and widespread in appropriate habitat, the Scintillant Hummingbird is evaluated as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Partners in Flight estimates a breeding population of 2.5 million, but numbers likely fluctuate from year to year. These adaptable hummingbirds may benefit from gardens and artificial feeders. Limiting insecticide use helps provide the small arthropods they rely on. Maintaining meadows and diverse natural plant communities that supply nectar blossoms also supports Scintillant Hummingbird populations.

Interesting Facts

– Iridescent plumage results from the refraction of light through specially structured feathers. The mix of air pockets and melanin pigment in the feathers cause different colors to be reflected as the angle changes.

-A rapid metabolism powers hummingbirds’ frenetic lifestyle, with heart rates up to 1260 beats per minute. They eat up to 2-3 times their weight daily. I

-In a technique called torpor, Scintillants and other hummingbirds lower their metabolism and body temperature at night to conserve energy when food is limited, such as on winter migration.

-Specialized tongue structure allows hummingbirds to lap up nectar. The tongues have tube-like grooves along the edges and quickly split and merge to collect and transport nectar.

-Hummingbird flight muscles make up 25-30% of their total body weight – the largest relative muscle mass of any vertebrate animal. This massive muscle mass allows the wings to beat 55-75 times per second.

-Scintillants migrate along the Pacific coast, likely crossing the 500 mile span of open ocean between breeding and wintering grounds. Their ability to periodically rest and refuel during this journey by landing on ships has earned them the nickname “jewels of the sea.”

-Male Scintillants perform aerial displays during courtship. Mating pairs do not remain together long. Females alone build the nest and care for the young.

-Scintillants will bathe in rainwater collected on leaves or drink from streams, fluttering their wings to spray water on their backs.

The Scintillant Hummingbird’s tiny size belies its incredible stamina and energetic lifestyle. When this migratory species wings its way along the Pacific Coast, its dazzling plumage lives up to the scintillating name and brightens the regions it graces with its presence. With a range dependent on the availability of flower nectar and continued conservation of its high mountain to coastal forest habitats, this diminutive bird serves as a reminder of the beauty and adaptability of nature.