The Volcano Hummingbird (Selasphorus flammula) is a species of hummingbird found exclusively in the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. Measuring just 3.5 inches long and weighing around 2-3 grams, it is a tiny bird with brightly colored plumage. The male volcano hummingbird has a brilliant orange-red throat patch called a gorget that appears to glow like molten lava. This is how the bird gets its name – the gorget resembles a volcano in eruption. The emerald green back and crown along with the violet-blue tail rounds out the male’s dazzling plumage. Meanwhile, the female volcano hummingbird lacks the flashy gorget and is more modestly attired in green and grey feathers.
Like all hummingbirds, the volcano hummingbird displays specialized adaptations that allow it to hover in midair by rapidly flapping its wings 15-80 times per second. This enables the bird to drink nectar from flowers while hovering perfectly still, a feat no other birds can match. The long, slender bill of the hummingbird is ideally shaped to probe into tubular blossoms. As the bird feeds, pollen sticks to its head and bill, allowing it to play an important role in plant pollination. In addition to nectar, hummingbirds will eat small insects for essential proteins.
The volcano hummingbird inhabits cloud forests and elfin forests at elevations between 6,500 feet to over 10,000 feet. This high mountain habitat is cool, wet, and cloaked in mist much of the time. Epiphytes such as orchids, ferns, and bromeliads thrive in the branches of the trees here. Many of these plants depend on the volcano hummingbird to pollinate their flowers. In turn, the hummingbird gets nectar to fuel its supercharged metabolism. Without each other, the plants and the hummingbirds would not thrive.
Because they live at such high elevations, volcano hummingbirds face challenges from the cold. Unlike other tropical hummingbirds, individuals of this species have developed adaptions to handle the cooler mountain temperatures. They conserve body heat by perching more frequently and reducing their exposure during harsh weather. Their metabolic rate can also drop to one-fourth the normal rate when asleep or in torpor. This all helps volcano hummingbirds maintain their tiny body temperature.
The breeding season for volcano hummingbirds coincides with the blooming of their favored food plants from March to May. The males perform elaborate aerial courtship displays, flying in loop de loop patterns to attract a mate. Once paired, the female builds a tiny cup nest out of plant down, lichen, and spiderwebs on a branch or fern. She incubates the two pea-sized eggs for 15-19 days until they hatch. The chicks fledge in another 20-26 days, an incredibly short time for any bird species.
Due to their remote and hard-to-access habitat, volcano hummingbirds remain relatively understudied compared to lowland tropical hummingbird species. However, some key facts about them have been uncovered by researchers over the years. For instance, it is now known that they have an intricate migratory pattern within their highland range in Costa Rica and Panama. Movement seems to be dictated by the blooming cycles of their food plants. The birds prefer habitats with an abundance of flower blossoms.
One interesting behavioral quirk of volcano hummingbirds is their tendency to follow monkeys through the forest. The monkeys disturb insects as they pass, and the hummingbirds opportunistically hawk any insects flushed out. This provides needed extra nutrition to supplement their nectar diet. It also perfectly showcases the intelligence and adaptability of hummingbirds.
Currently, the volcano hummingbird is listed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. Its remote habitat protects it from many threats facing more accessible birds. However, some potential risks going forward include climate change impacts that could alter high elevation environments. Limited habitat disturbance from logging and agriculture also occurs in parts of its range. Eco-tourism poses another emerging threat if birdwatchers repeatedly disrupt feeding and nesting behaviors. Continued monitoring of volcano hummingbird populations will be important to ensure the stability of this unique hummingbird.
In summary, the volcano hummingbird is a jewel of the cloud forests, with its sparkling colors and energetic disposition endearing it to bird enthusiasts. As with its close cousin the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, sparkles seem to emanate from its feathers as it feeds in the misty highlands. The contributions the tiny volcano hummingbird makes to its mountain habitats through pollination and insect control are outsized for its small stature. This species has carved out a niche in challenging terrain and adapted to thrive amidst the peaks. The imperiled cloud forest ecosystems the volcano hummingbird inhabits certainly benefit from continued conservation, for without these habitats, we would indeed miss out on one of nature’s most radiant wonders.