The ruby-topaz hummingbird is a small, colorful bird found in the southwestern United States and Mexico. With its brilliant, iridescent feathers shining in hues of ruby red and orange-yellow, this species is aptly named for its resemblance to the precious gemstones. Though tiny, the ruby-topaz packs a lot of personality into its petite frame, zipping from flower to flower so quickly it seems to disappear and reappear at will. In this article, we’ll explore the identification, habitat, diet, behavior, breeding, and conservation status of this flashy flier.
The ruby-topaz hummingbird measures just 3 to 3.5 inches in length and weighs 2 to 3 grams on average. The short, slender bill typical of hummingbirds is straight and black. But it’s the plumage that really makes this bird stand out. The male sports a gorget (throat patch) in vibrant ruby red, while the head, back, tail, and wings shine in orange-yellow and greenish tones. The underparts are grayish white. Females lack the male’s flashy gorget, instead exhibiting pale white throats and olive green upperparts. In flight, the short wings beat at an astonishing 50 to 80 flaps per second, producing the characteristic humming sound.
These hummingbirds are found in dry, open woodland, scrub, chaparral, and desert landscapes of the southwestern US and Mexico. They occur at elevations up to 8,500 feet. Common trees in ruby-topaz habitat include oak, pine, juniper, and mesquite. The presence of flowering plants is key, as the birds rely on nectar for nutrition. They are drawn to both wildflowers and human-cultivated blossoms. Some favorite food plants include sages, penstemons, fuchsias, and the non-native shrub called Pride of Madeira.
Like all hummingbirds, the ruby-topaz is a nectar specialist. It uses its slender, tube-shaped tongue to lap up sugary nectar from colorful tubular blossoms. Some favorite nectar sources include the red flowers of penstemon, ocotillo, monarda, and honeysuckle. The hummingbird’s need for frequent refueling drives it to visit hundreds of flowers each day. If a flower’s supply is depleted, the bird promptly moves on. The ruby-topaz supplements its diet with small insects like gnats, spiders, and aphids. It may occasionally visit sap wells made by sapsucker woodpeckers.
The ruby-topaz hummingbird is solitary and territorial. Males establish breeding territories in spring and aggressively chase intruders away with acrobatic flying displays. Short chases and rapid dives are accompanied by vocalizations and the flashing of colorful plumage. Despite their small size, the birds are fearless in confronting larger species that enter their turf. Outside of the breeding season, they may gather in loose flocks at particularly productive nectar sources. Roosting at night helps conserve energy. They enter a hibernate-like state called torpor to cope with food shortages and cold weather.
Males arrive at the breeding grounds first and court females with elaborate aerial displays. Once paired, the female builds a tiny cup nest out of plant down, spider webs, and lichens, strategically attaching it to a branch. The eggs are pea-sized, white, and number just two per clutch. Incubation lasts 14 to 19 days. The naked, helpless hatchlings are tended by the female alone as they mature and fledge in about 3 weeks. Males play no role beyond the initial courtship. Females may raise two broods per season. Ruby-topaz hummingbirds are sexually mature by their first year. Average lifespan in the wild is 3 to 5 years.
With a large range and increasing population trend, the ruby-topaz hummingbird is evaluated as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Habitat loss is a threat in some regions, though the birds adapt readily to human-altered environments. They attend backyard bird feeders, visit ornamental plantings, and even thrive in cities. As long as adequate flowers and nest sites exist, providing a clean nectar feeder can help supplement their nutritional needs. Keeping cats indoors protects hummingbirds from predation. Enjoying these feathered jewels visiting garden blossoms is a reward for wildlife-friendly gardening practices. With care and conservation, the ruby-topaz’s sparkling presence will continue to enhance its southwestern home.