Costa’s Hummingbird Species

With its vibrant purple-red throat and energetic disposition, the Costa’s hummingbird is one of the most recognizable and charismatic hummingbird species in the western United States. Though small, weighing only about 3 grams, these tiny birds live life at full speed. Zipping from flower to flower with lightning speed, the Costa’s hummingbird stakes claim to its favorite nectar sources and fiercely defends its territory. Though pugnacious, its charming nature and sheer beauty have won over many admirers who eagerly await its return each spring.

Description

The adult male Costa’s hummingbird sports iridescent purple-red feathers on its throat, forming a tapering “beard.” Depending on the angle, the gorget may appear dark blackish-red or light violet. The crown and back are green, while the underside is grayish white. Females lack the flashy throat patch and are generally smaller than males. Their underparts are whitish with greenish sides and tail feathers tipped in white.

Costa’s hummingbirds have very short legs and feet, an adaptation that enables them to hover at flowers while feeding. Their long, slender bills allow them to probe deep into tubular blooms. Weighing only about as much as a penny, these tiny birds have high metabolisms and must visit hundreds of flowers daily to fuel their energy needs.

Distribution and Habitat

Costa’s hummingbirds are found along the Pacific coast from southern British Columbia to southern California. Though partly migratory, they do not undertake the long migrations seen in other hummingbird species. Their breeding habitat extends inland to the Mojave Desert and Colorado River, where they nest in desert scrub, woodlands, and chaparral habitats.

In summer, they thrive in dry forests and desert scrublands marked by ocotillo, palo verde, and agave plants. When desert blooms fade in late spring, Costa’s hummingbirds move west to cooler coastal areas, where flowering plants are more abundant. They frequent gardens, parks, and chaparral ecosystems rich in nectar sources and small insects.

Behavior and Diet

The antics of Costa’s hummingbirds endear them to many observers. Pugnacious and territorial, males perform dramatic dive displays and chases to warn off intruders, sometimes aggressive enough to knock another bird right out of midair! They aggressively defend patches of flowers, perches, or nest sites against any encroaching hummer.

Though feisty, Costa’s hummingbirds are also captivating to watch. Their wings beat up to 40 times per second, allowing them to execute precise maneuvers and hold nearly motionless in midair. Their preferred food sources are nectar from tubular flowers of shrubs, succulents, and trees. Some favorite plants include sages, fuchsia, penstemon, coral honeysuckle, and ocotillo. Costa’s hummingbirds use their long tongues to lap up nectar while hovering before blooms.

They also capture small insects for essential proteins. By spending winters and early spring in the warm desert, Costa’s hummingbirds get a jump start on the bloom of flowering plants. They migrate west to the coast when inland food sources start fading in late spring. This allows them to follow the bloom of successive flowers all through the breeding season.

Reproduction

In late fall and winter, male Costa’s hummingbirds perform spectacular courtship flights to impress females. They fly in loops up to 130 feet in the air, before diving at breakneck speed past the female with an explosive popping sound made by their tail feathers. If receptive, the female may cooperate or even mimic this display. However, females also exert their own choice in partners.

Costa’s hummingbirds nest in a wide variety of small trees and shrubs, including eucs, oaks, pines, and palms. The female builds a tiny cup nest out of soft plant down, spider webs, and lichens. She incubates the eggs alone for 14 to 19 days, while the male periodically brings some food but spends more time displaying and mating with other females. The chicks hatch out naked and helpless but grow quickly on a diet of regurgitated insects and nectar. They fledge in 18 to 22 days, gaining their full adult plumage after one year.

Conservation Status

While Costa’s hummingbird numbers are still healthy, trends in urbanization and flowering plant loss can negatively impact populations. As relatively recent colonizers of urban areas, they also face hazards like building collisions and pesticide use. Providing nectar feeders and native plant gardens can support these charismatic hummingbirds in suburban neighborhoods. Protecting desert scrub and chaparral ecosystems will preserve vital nesting and foraging habitat. Though small, Costa’s hummingbirds have a large appeal, and maintaining populations of this species will ensure their jewel-like flash can continue dazzling generations to come.