The Sombre Hummingbird (Aphantochroa cirrochloris) is a small hummingbird found in South America. With an average body length of 7-8 cm and weight of 2-3 grams, it is a relatively petite hummingbird species. Its plumage is primarily dull green on the back and head, with a grayish breast and belly. The male Sombre Hummingbird has a dark violet-blue throat patch, while the female has a pale white throat.
Native Range and Habitat
The Sombre Hummingbird is found in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Its habitat consists of semi-open areas near forests, scrublands, and meadows at elevations between 1000-4500 meters. It tends to avoid dense, closed canopy forests. Within its elevational range, it is found in many ecological zones from dry puna grasslands to humid cloud forests.
Like all hummingbirds, the Sombre Hummingbird feeds on nectar from flowering plants. It uses its long, slender bill to drink nectar while hovering in front of flowers. Some of the main flower species it feeds from include shrubs in the genera Fuchsia, Barnadesia, Salvia, and Bomarea. The Sombre Hummingbird will also supplement its diet with small insects such as gnats, aphids, and spiders. It forages actively throughout the day, visiting hundreds of flowers over the course of its daily feeding.
The Sombre Hummingbird, like other hummingbirds, has a specialized courtship display flight. In the presence of a female, the male will fly back and forth in a U-shaped pattern up to a hundred feet in the air. At the top of this pattern, he will burst up and then dive straight down, making loud chirping sounds with his tail feathers during the dive. This precipitous dive serves to impress watching females. The male may repeat this courtship display hundreds of times over the course of a day.
One distinctive feature of the Sombre Hummingbird is its ability to produce sounds with its tail feathers during flight displays. Most male hummingbirds have specially adapted outer tail feathers that can snap together to produce chirping sounds. In the Sombre Hummingbird, these outer tail feathers are curved, allowing them to snap together with an amplified cracking or popping sound that is much louder than in other hummingbird species. This helps the male’s display be heard by watching females over greater distances.
The female Sombre Hummingbird is solely responsible for nest construction and caring for the young. She builds a small, delicate cup-shaped nest out of plant down and spider webs on a thin tree branch, tree fern, or other vegetation. The outer diameter of the nest is only about 2.5 inches wide. She lines the inside with soft plant fibers. The female will lay two tiny white eggs in the nest, and incubate them for about 16-19 days. Once hatched, the chicks remain in the nest for another 20-26 days, fed by the female with regurgitated nectar and insects. The chicks are born with only a little down, but quickly sprout feathers for flight. They will leave the nest about a month after hatching. The female may go on to raise 2-3 broods over the course of a breeding season.
Populations of the Sombre Hummingbird living at higher elevations migrate downslope for the winter. Those breeding in the highest altitudes of the Andes may migrate hundreds of kilometers to reach more temperate climates. Their winter range extends into Bolivia, southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. This altitudinal migration is driven by the seasonal availability of flower resources. As flowering diminishes in the colder months at high elevations, the birds move to lower areas with more consistent nectar supplies throughout the winter.
THREATS AND CONSERVATION
With a large range and a stable population trend, the Sombre Hummingbird is evaluated as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. However, there are some potential threats to its habitat from increasing agriculture, grazing, mining operations and development across parts of its range in the Andes. Global warming could also shift and reduce its high elevation breeding zones. Most of its range exists outside of protected areas. Maintaining intact wilderness and minimizing land use change in Andean highlands will be important for the long-term preservation of suitable habitat across the Sombre Hummingbird’s range. More expansive protected areas in the central Andes would help create climate resilient habitat to allow range adjustments and altitudinal migrations as the climate changes.
The indigenous Quechua people of the Andes refer to the Sombre Hummingbird as “Q’umir”, meaning “little black one”. They consider it an important pollinator of mountain crops like potatoes and quinoa. According to Quechua folklore, the hummingbird’s ability to fly backwards signifies that it can travel between the material and spiritual worlds. The Sombre Hummingbird is also significant in Quechua culture for its aggressive pugnacious behavior. Its fights with other hummingbirds over territory and flowers are likened to rituals of spiritual cleansing and renewal. Overall, the Sombre Hummingbird maintains an iconic yet enigmatic status in the legends and cosmology of native Andean cultures.
In summary, the diminutive Sombre Hummingbird may not be the flashiest or most colorful of hummingbirds, but it is a well-adapted species endemic to the high Andes. It plays an integral ecological role as a pollinator for alpine vegetation and wild crops. And with its unique vocalizations and aerial agility, this species has enthralled the imaginations of indigenous Quechua peoples for generations. Careful stewardship of its specialized high elevation habitat will ensure the perpetuation of the Sombre Hummingbird across its Andean realm.