The Rufous-breasted hermit hummingbird is a small hummingbird found in tropical South America. With an average body length of only 8-9 cm and weight of 2-3 grams, it is one of the smaller hummingbird species. Despite its tiny size, the Rufous-breasted hermit exhibits striking plumage and interesting behaviors that make it a favorite among birdwatchers.
As the name suggests, the Rufous-breasted hermit has a rufous or reddish-brown colored underside and breast. The back and top of the head are an iridescent green, while the tail is primarily rufous with black tips. The bill is long, slender and downward curved. The male has distinctive grizzled gray cheeks and throat. Females lack this distinct facial plumage and are overall less vibrantly colored on the underside. Juveniles appear similar to adult females.
Taxonomy and Evolutionary History
The Rufous-breasted hermit is one of over 300 species of hummingbirds found in the Americas. It is part of the hermit subfamily (Phaethornithinae) which consists of dull-colored forest hummingbirds with decurved bills adapted for accessing nectar from flowers with longer corollas. The Rufous-breasted hermit is the only member of the Glaucis genus.
Fossil evidence indicates hummingbirds have been present in South America for over 30 million years since the Oligocene period. The rapid speciation and adaptation seen in modern hummingbirds is thought to have occurred during the uplift of the northern Andes mountains. As new habitats and floral resources became available, different hummingbird species evolved to take advantage of them. The Rufous-breasted hermit emerged as a tropical forest species feeding on long, tubular flowers.
Distribution and Habitat
The Rufous-breasted hermit is found along the northern coast and in the Amazon basin of South America. Its range includes parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil and Peru. It occupies tropical lowland rainforests, forest edges and adjacent semi-open areas like gardens and second growth vegetation.
Population and Conservation Status
Given its broad distribution in the Amazon, the Rufous-breasted hermit is considered a species of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. However, some localized declines in population have been noted, particularly in Brazil where urban expansion is reducing its habitat. Overall population numbers are believed to be decreasing but not yet at the threshold for a threatened or endangered listing. Maintaining the large tracts of tropical forest that the species inhabits will be crucial for its long-term survival.
Diet and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, the Rufous-breasted hermit subsists primarily on nectar taken from a variety of blooming flowers and plants. Some favorite food sources are flowers in the Heliconia genus and epiphyte vines in the genus Drymonia. The long curved bill of the Rufous-breasted hermit allows it to access nectar from flowers with corollas of a similar shape and length that other birds and pollinators cannot reach.
In addition to nectar, the Rufous-breasted hermit supplements its diet with small insects like gnats, aphids and spiders. The insects provide an additional source of protein. Foraging for insects involves flying rapidly around vegetation and capturing prey in mid-air or gleaning them directly off leaves and branches.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Rufous-breasted hermit is its breeding behavior. Unlike most hummingbird species that nest solitarily, the Rufous-breasted hermit is communal, meaning multiple birds will contribute to building and maintaining a single nest. In Primeira Cruz in Brazil, over a dozen communal nests were documented, two of which contained over 100 eggs each. It is thought this communal behavior provides safety benefits against nest predators who find large nests housing many birds intimidating.
Another unusual behavior is the Rufous-breasted hermit’s use of its long bill to access certain food sources. The bill’s pronounced downward curve is an adaptation for stealing nectar from the nests of social wasps. The hermit will hover near an active wasp nest and use its bill to extract nectar through the paper exterior. This risky behavior sometimes results in the hermit being chased off or stung on the face by resident wasps defending the nest.
Relationship with Humans
The glittering plumage and energetic flight of the Rufous-breasted hermit make it a favorite among birdwatchers in the Neotropics. It is a regular visitor to feeders and flowering gardens. This affords bird enthusiasts close-up views and photography opportunities that are cherished given the hummingbird’s normal preference for the forest canopy.
The hermit is also significant in plant pollination networks. Various tropical plants have evolved corolla shapes and sizes that specifically match the hermit’s bill structure and pollen carrying capacity. By accessing certain flowers that only it can reach, the hermit completes critical pollination functions. This interdependent plant-pollinator relationship demonstrates the broader ecosystem services the species provides.
While not currently threatened, the Rufous-breasted hermit does face some conservation concerns going forward. Continued habitat loss in South America’s tropical forests threatens to reduce its range and food sources. Climate change could also disrupt the seasonal flowering and fruiting patterns the species depends on. However, existing protected areas and reserves within its range provide some buffer against these threats.
Overall, the Rufous-breasted hermit hummingbird has persevered for millennia thanks to its unique adaptations. As long as sufficient habitat remains, its future seems secure. Its communal nature provides stability rare among solitary hummingbird species. This cooperative breeding behavior may be key to unlocking the secrets behind its evolutionary success. Continued research and observation will reveal more about the biology and resilience of this fascinating Neotropical hummingbird.