The Snowcap Hummingbird (Microchera albocoronata) is a small hummingbird found in cloud forest and elfin forest habitats in the Andes Mountains of South America. With an average body length of only 9-10 centimeters, it is one of the smallest hummingbird species in the world. Despite its tiny size, the brilliant white plumage on the heads of the males makes the Snowcap hummingbird stand out vividly against the lush greenery of its mountain home.
Natural History and Description
The Snowcap hummingbird is named for the distinctive snowy white caps or “crowns” found on the heads of mature males of the species. The white plumage extends from the forehead to the nape and sharply contrasts with the iridescent bronze-green plumage covering the rest of the body. Females and immature males lack the white cap and are duller overall, with greenish-grey plumage on the head and upperparts and greyish underparts.
Snowcap hummingbirds have very short black bills that are slightly curved to aid in nectar feeding from flowers. Their long, slender wings allow these agile hummers to hover in place while feeding and to fly swiftly between flowers. The tail is dark green and forked. Males have an average body length of 9 cm and weigh 5-6 grams. Females are slightly larger, averaging 10 cm long and 6-7 grams in weight.
The Snowcap hummingbird is found along the Andes Mountains from Venezuela to Bolivia, between elevations of 2500 to 4500 meters. They inhabit cloud forests and elfin forests characterized by short, gnarled trees and shrubs draped in mosses and epiphytes. The flowers of these high elevation ecosystems provide prime feeding grounds.
Diet and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, the Snowcap hummingbird has a specialized diet consisting mainly of nectar from flowers. Their long, slender beaks and tongues are adapted for accessing nectar from long tubular Andean flowers such as the passionflower genus Passiflora. As the birds hover in front of the blooms, they use their bill tip to probe inside for nectar.
In addition to nectar, Snowcap hummingbirds supplement their diet by catching small insects like gnats, aphids, and spiders. The extra protein gained from insects helps meet the high metabolic demands of these energetic little birds. They hunt insects primarily by making aerial sallies, expertly plucking the bugs from leaves and branches while hovering.
Reproduction and Lifespan
The breeding season for Snowcap hummingbirds coincides with the blooming of flowers in their cloud forest habitats. Males perform elaborate courtship displays, flying in u-shaped patterns to impress females. Once paired, the female builds a tiny cup nest out of soft plant down, spider webs, and lichens on a tree branch. She then lays 2 pea-sized white eggs in the nest.
Snowcap hummingbird eggs hatch after 15-19 days. The chicks are born helpless, with closed eyes and no downy feathers. The female alone cares for the chicks, sheltering them in the nest and feeding them regurgitated nectar and insects. After about 3 weeks, the fledglings are ready to leave the nest. By 6-8 weeks old, the young hummingbirds become independent. Lifespans in the wild are not well researched but other small hummingbirds typically live 3-5 years.
Threats and Conservation
The Snowcap hummingbird’s small breeding range and specialized high mountain habitat make it vulnerable to habitat loss from deforestation and climate change. Warming temperatures have caused the tree line to increase in elevation in the Andes, reducing and fragmenting the extent of elfin forest. This habitat reduction places pressure on Snowcap hummingbird populations dependent on these forests.
Part of the species’ range overlaps with protected areas such as Sangay and Podocarpus National Parks in Ecuador, which provide some safeguards. But outside protected lands, logging and agricultural expansion continue to degrade forest cover. More research and monitoring of Snowcap hummingbird populations is needed to determine ongoing impacts of habitat loss. Efforts to protect remaining old growth elfin and cloud forest habitats within the Snowcap’s range will benefit this and other sensitive high elevation species. With such focused conservation measures in place, the rare beauty of the Snowcap hummingbird will continue to brighten its misty mountain forests for future generations.